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Investigating immunity in asymptomatic COVID-19 populations

Researchers across the Midlands Innovation partners have been collaborating on almost 100 research projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Associate Professor Lucy Fairclough at The University of Nottingham is involved in a research project which will play a vital role in how universities manage the return of student populations who largely experience asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

As social distancing restrictions across England have now lifted, now more than ever, understanding the COVID-19 virus is crucial and collecting data through research will play a major role in how we recover from the pandemic.   

I have been involved in a research project to investigate immunity in asymptomatic COVID-19 populations, in particular examining transmission rates and immune responses of the virus amongst university students.

Understanding asymptomatic COVID-19 cases

At the beginning of the 2020/2021 academic year, universities across the UK saw a sharp increase in the COVID-19 infection rates in a largely asymptomatic student population (those that do not have symptoms traditionally associated with the COVID-19 virus).

These populations could only be monitored thanks to the decision of some Higher Education providers to establish in-house asymptomatic testing facilities. These services ran in parallel to UK Government’s surveillance efforts, which in turn relied mostly on self-referred symptomatic cases.

Appreciating the untapped potential contained in these highly controlled cohorts, the University of Nottingham is leading a project with the universities of Cambridge and Cardiff which has created asymptomatic testing services with ‘consent to research’ and ‘future contact’ embedded in the sample collection workflow.

Shaping student immunological profiling

Given the regional, demographic and living arrangements differences within and across these three universities, this consortium provided a unique opportunity to systematically collect samples and data that proved invaluable in understanding the development of immunity against SARS-CoV2, through past and future immunological profile in this population.

It also enabled studies on still underappreciated aspects of the infection, such as the impact of virus mutation/vaccination on the development of the immune response.

This new, diverse and rich collection has been constructed by coordinating existing programmes across the University of Nottingham, University of Cambridge and Cardiff University, bringing consistency to data collection and generation. The result is a unique resource of 30,000 individuals completing asymptomatic SARS-COV2 screening with around 550 baseline samples collected. 

Future funding to boost research outcomes

The second round of funding (£400K, in addition to the £550K already secured) will enable maintenance of this legacy cohort of young people, examination of transmission rates and measurement of immune response to both natural infection and vaccine responses by examining antibody levels.

The funding has been secured through the COVID-19 Immunity National Core Study from UKRI, led by University of Birmingham and I’m working with Dr Mark Wills and Prof Andrew Godkin on the project.

 Author: Associate Professor Lucy Fairclough at The University of Nottingham