Global team unites to study international differences in COVID-19 immunity

An international consortium of researchers has come together to better understand why COVID-19 was milder in some parts of the world.

While the initial pandemic response to SARS-CoV-2 is scaling down, ongoing research and monitoring will be essential to understand this virus, which will continue to evolve.
David LV Bauer

Supported by £3.1 million from the Wellcome Trust, the newly-created WWW Consortium links three leading studies in West Africa, the West Indies, and West London, each tracking how both the virus and our immunity has evolved against COVID-19.  

In order to better understand the factors impacting COVID-19 outcomes in these regions, researchers will compare prospective samples and data from vaccinated individuals. They will assess a variety of immune conditions and medical histories, including prior exposure to SARS-CoV-2, other human and animal coronaviruses, as well as other infectious diseases like malaria. 

A hand holding a tray of samples being tested for COVID-19.

The consortium will provide evidence to help unpick patterns seen so far in different areas of the world. For example, West Africa experienced large undetected SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but with negligible impacts on mortality. On the other hand, the trends observed in the West Indies were similar to the UK, despite countries like Jamaica having a much lower vaccination rate. 

They hope their work will be useful in informing future pandemic response in regions currently underserved by both research and surveillance capacity. 

David LV Bauer, who heads the RNA Virus Replication Laboratory at the Crick, will lead the consortium. He said: “While the initial pandemic response to SARS-CoV-2 is scaling down, ongoing research and monitoring will be essential to understand this virus, which will continue to evolve.

“We wanted to build a global consortium so that research and surveillance capacity continues to grow internationally.”

The consortium will strengthen research connections made during the pandemic, as virologists and public experts collaborated to piece together a picture of viral evolution globally. The project also builds on the success of the Crick African Network (CAN), which established strong ties between African institutions and the Francis Crick Institute.

Emma Wall, UCLH Infectious Diseases consultant and Senior Clinical Research Fellow for the Legacy study at the Crick, said: “Connecting our London-based study with research projects in Africa and the West Indies will help us not only understand differences across countries, but also how to best protect people based on shared characteristics.

“And as SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve, we will ensure we are prepared with excellent channels of communication and information sharing globally.”

Gordon Awandare, Director of the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) at the University of Ghana, said: “Pre-exposure to other infectious diseases like malaria is much more common in West Africa, and we think that this can increase the tolerance of the immune system.

“In some cases, this might be helpful, prepping the immune system for future infections and decreasing the chance of severe illness. But it might also mean that vaccines are less effective and we should consider designing vaccines for specific populations.”

Joshua Anzinger, Senior Lecturer of Virology at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, said: “Vaccination rates are very low in Jamaica. The Windfall cohort includes individuals amongst the first to be vaccinated. Going forward we will be enrolling both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals, and monitoring their immune responses to different variants.

“With increased sequencing capacity at our university’s Trinidad and Tobago campus and more recently in Jamaica, we can now contribute a unique picture of immunity across the West Indies. Crucially we can now untangle the increasing complexity of individual responses to infection, and how these might influence population level immunity against future variants.”

About the WWW consortium

About the WWW consortium

The consortium comprises of researchers from: 

It will bring together the Legacy study in London, England; the Yemaachi Biotech Heritage Study in Accra, Ghana; and the Windfall Study in Kingston, Jamaica.

  • The Heritage project, is a longitudinal study of vaccine responses among Ghanaian adults vaccinated against SARS-COV-2. The project is led by Dr Yaw Bediako with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The study involves a collaboration between Yemaachi Biotech, WACCBIP and the Ghana Health Service and seeks to leverage advanced immunophenotyping techniques to shed light on why vaccine responses appear to differ between different geographical regions. 
  • The Windfall study will prospectively follow vaccinated and unvaccinated cohorts from across the West Indies, monitoring their immune responses to different SARS-CoV-2 variants.
  • The UCLH-Crick Legacy study builds upon the partnership between University College London Hospitals and the Francis Crick Institute that was established in March 2020 to set up a unique testing pipeline to protect staff from COVID-19. Researchers are using these testing records as well as proactively tracking individuals to establish how factors like age, sex, ethnicity, and past and current medical histories, impact the risk of infection and how the body responds.

Find out more about the consortium here.

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