Five new COVID-19 vaccine research projects announced

Female doctor wearing blue latex gloves injecting a child in her arm with a needle and syringe containing a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine cure by way of immunisation

Five new COVID-19 research projects are announced today, receiving a total of over £4 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

They will study the durability of vaccine responses, low responses linked with health conditions, and the effect of booster shots.

The studies will research the strength and durability of the immune response in a wide range of people, including:

  • people with conditions that result in a weakened immune system, specifically HIV, B cell lymphoma, inflammatory bowel disease and chronic myeloid leukaemia
  • people who are obese
  • health care workers
  • people with a weak vaccine response from the general population.

These studies aim to:

  • determine how long immunity from the vaccine lasts
  • identify groups of people at risk from low vaccine responses
  • determine if and when vaccine boosters are required for these groups, as well as the wider population.

This will help to inform clinical management and vaccine policy.

Immune response

One of the studies will potentially involve administering booster shots to participants with a low vaccine response and monitoring the effect it has on their immune systems.

Another study, conducted across the UK, South Africa and Brazil, will monitor immunity and vaccine effectiveness to virus variants.

Researchers from the SCORPIO study will monitor the effect of different levels of weight loss on the immune response of 200 people with severe obesity taking part in an existing weight loss study.

World-leading health and data research

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

As we build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s critical that we continue supporting our world class researchers to better understand the virus and how to tackle it, including our successful vaccination programme.

These five COVID-19 research studies we are throwing our weight behind today will be crucial in helping us to solve important unanswered questions – from how long vaccine immunity lasts to the potential effectiveness of booster shots.

Dr Rob Buckle, Chief Scientist of the Medical Research Council (MRC), part of UKRI which funded the trials, said:

Vaccines have proved to be an invaluable tool in the fight against COVID-19, but there are still questions to be answered, from the durability of post-vaccine immunity to vaccine efficacy for people with weakened immune systems.

These studies will help provide guidance to policy makers and clinicians on a range of issues, including when and for whom booster shots are necessary.

The studies are part of the National Core Studies programme for COVID-19 projects, which is:

  • enabling the UK to use research and health data to inform both our near and long-term responses to COVID-19
  • accelerating progress to establish a world-leading health data and research infrastructure for the future.

Further information

The projects receiving funding are listed below.

Investigation of proven vaccine breakthrough by SARS-CoV-2 variants in established UK healthcare worker cohorts: SIREN consortium and PITCH Plus Pathway – £1.57 million

Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England

The SIREN Consortium aims to investigate immunity against COVID-19 post-vaccination, including the durability of the immune response, using the largest global cohort study following around 45,000 healthcare workers. They complete regular antibody tests and fortnightly PCR tests.

This additional funding will enable the consortium to undertake detailed clinical and laboratory investigation of individuals with post-vaccination ‘breakthrough’ infection to:

  • identify genetic, immunological and viral factors linked to these infections
  • provide evidence on the effectiveness of the vaccination programme and to inform future policy.

An immunogenetic approach to guide the need for booster shots and combat immune failure in SARS-CoV-2 vaccine response – £980,000

Professor Julian Knight, University of Oxford

This project seeks to improve our ability to identify individuals at risk of developing a low COVID-19 vaccine response by understanding the underlying mechanisms involved.

To do this, researchers will work with the National COVID-19 Infection Survey to contact individuals in the general UK population who vary in antibody responsiveness to vaccination. They will then use this data to map genetic markers that can help identify at-risk individuals and populations.

Complementing this genetic analysis, in a separate study, researchers will also investigate the effect of booster shots on those with low vaccine response.

The durability of immune responses to vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 and its variants – £780,000

Professor Rosemary Boyton, Imperial College London

This collaborative study will investigate immunity to SARS-CoV-2 infection in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, including variants:

  • alpha
  • beta
  • gamma
  • delta.

The project aims to understand the durability and nature of immune protection from COVID-19 in the vaccinated and following natural infection, and susceptibility to reinfection and breakthrough infections, especially with variants.

It will also investigate if and how the vaccine response is impaired in immunosuppressed people who have inflammatory bowel disease or chronic myeloid leukaemia.

This will allow researchers to provide guidance regarding the need for vaccine boosters in healthy adults and immunosuppressed people.

SARS COV2 vaccine response in obesity – SCORPIO study – £750,000

Dr James Thaventhiran and Professor Sadaf Farooqi, University of Cambridge

The project will investigate the effect of obesity on COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness. As part of an existing weight loss study involving 200 people with severe obesity, they will monitor the effect of different levels of weight loss on the immune response to vaccination.

The weight loss study participants’ immune responses will then be compared against the those of 1,500 people in the healthy weight range.

Researchers will also perform a meta-analysis of 50,000 people from existing UK studies to investigate the link between BMI and vaccine responses across the full range from overweight, to obese and severely obese.

By doing this, the researchers aim to identify nutritional and metabolomic biomarkers that are linked with vaccine responses and test whether weight loss can improve vaccine responses in obese people.

Determining the immunological basis for weakened SARS-CoV-2 vaccination outcomes – £420,000

Dr Laura McCoy, UCL

This study will establish the strength and durability of COVID-19 vaccine responses in people with two conditions that weaken the immune system: HIV and B cell lymphoma, a cancer of immune cells.

The study will compare how these conditions, which affect different parts of the immune system (HIV impairs ‘T cells’ and B cell cancers reduce ‘B cells’), affect vaccine response and will also compare a range of severity, from mildly to severely affected.

This data will help to better understand how these people respond to vaccines, and how this differs depending on how severely compromised their immune system is, to inform clinical decision making and input into policy for vaccine boosters.

Top image:  Credit: Chaz Bharj / Getty Images

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