Insufficient interferon, a substance that helps orchestrate the body’s defence against viral pathogens, may be the reason some COVID-19 patients get very ill, a landmark study published in the journal Science on September 24, claims.
This impaired interferon response may be a dangerous turning point in infections of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
The scientific papers reveal that in a significant minority – about 14 percent - of seriously ill COVID-19 patients, the interferon response was crippled by genetic flaws or by rogue antibodies that attacked the interferon itself.
‘Type I’ interferons are made by cells in the body and are key to any antiviral battle in early stages of an infection. These interferons launch a quick and intense local response against the virus. They trigger infected cells to produce proteins which attack the virus.
Interferons also call in immune cells and alert uninfected cells close by to prepare their defences.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The study has practical implications. According to a report by Science magazine, synthetic interferons, which have been used to treat other diseases, may help some at-risk patients.
Elina Zuniga, an immunologist who studies interferons at the University of California, San Diego, told the magazine that people found to be at high risk of developing severe COVID- 19 could take more precautions and could be prioritised for vaccination, when available.