Researching the common cold and COVID-19

Australian researchers are leading investigations into SARS-CoV-2 and discovering how the common cold might help immune cells see the virus.

The battle for COVID-19 is not yet over. Currently available vaccines will provide relief but the road ahead remains uncertain. Much work remains to be done.

A team from La Trobe University, in collaboration with QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Monash University and The University of Queensland, is leading the way in research on SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the disease we know as COVID-19.

Their significant finding, in the journal Immunity, reveals that catching the common cold might help our immune cells to “see” the SARS-CoV-2 virus before catching it.

Lead researcher, Professor Stephanie Gras (pictured), from the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, said that exposure to a winter cold may increase our chances of developing an immune response against SARS-CoV-2.

“We have shown that specific molecules within our immune system that can present small parts of the coronaviruses similar to those responsible for COVID-19 and the common cold.

“Similar parts of the viruses could trigger a very strong immune response in individuals recovering form COVID-19. The immune cells that we are studying are called killer T cells, which are able to kill cells infected with the virus. We even saw some response against SARS-CoV-2 in people that were not infected with it, this is called pre-existing immunity.”

This research will help scientists better understand how immune cells recognise this new coronavirus and how a response could be manipulated to boost immunity, and potentially explore a new vaccine strategy.

Co-lead researcher Associate Professor Corey Smith from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute said: “It is critical to understand how T cells respond to SARS-CoV-2, particularly with the recent emergence of different variants that can escape antibody responses. T cells are as important as antibodies in our immune repsonse to COVID-19 and are less likley to be affected by changes that occur in emerging variants.”

Professor Gras said these variants are due to mutations in the virus, and this can impact, and unfortunately decrease, the efficacy of the current vaccines.

Associate Professor Smith said: “As we demonstrate in our study, the strong response we have observed is in a region of the virus that has so far shown no changes in the new SARS-CoV-2 variants and is even conserved in common cold viruses”.

Professor Gras and her team are at the forefront of this potentially life-saving research. Their findings may lead to a new diagnostic or vaccine target against COVID-19.

*This La Trobe University research was done in collaboration with QIMR Berghofer, Monash University, University of Queensland, Australian Synchrotron, Fiona Stanley Hospital and the University of Western Australia.

To participate in the La Trobe University lead study on COVID-19 disease and COVID-19 vaccination please contact lead investigator Professor Stephanie Gras (

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