Coronavirus: ‘significant’ number of Brits may have natural immunity

Scientists believe milder viruses have primed many people’s immune systems to fight off Covid-19

Coronavirus lab
(Image credit: Jane Barlow/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Immunity to Covid-19 may have been widespread among humans even before the pandemic swept across the world, according to Oxford University scientists leading the race for a coronavirus vaccine.

John Bell, the university’s regius professor of medicine, told MPs yesterday that white blood cells known as T cells could learn how to tackle the coronavirus from exposure to other, less dangerous infections - including the common cold.

Addressing the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, Bell said: “What seems clear is you do have cross-reaction from T cells that are activated by standard endemic coronaviruses.

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“I think they are present in quite a significant number of people.”

And that means “large numbers of the population may have natural immunity against coronavirus even if they have never been infected”, says The Telegraph.

Bell and his team are currently testing a potential vaccine in the UK, US, Brazil and South Africa.

His colleague Professor Sarah Gilbert “said on Wednesday the team has seen the right sort of immune response in trials, but declined to give a firm timeframe for when it could be ready”, Reuters reports.

Separate studies published in recent days have also suggested that a large number of people who have no Covid-19 antibodies may instead be protected by T cells. In some cases, those protective cells may have been activated by Covid-19, but a similar response may be generated by other coronaviruses such as those that cause the common cold.

So “people testing negative for coronavirus antibodies may still have some immunity”, says the BBC.

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.