Immune warriors known as T cells help us fight some viruses, but their importance for battling SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been unclear. Now, two studies reveal infected people harbor T cells that target the virus—and may help them recover. Both studies also found some people never infected with SARS-CoV-2 have these cellular defenses, most likely because they were previously infected with other coronaviruses.
“This is encouraging data,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University. Although the studies don’t clarify whether people who clear a SARS-CoV-2 infection can ward off the virus in the future, both identified strong T cell responses to it, which “bodes well for the development of long-term protective immunity,” Rasmussen says. The findings could also help researchers create better vaccines.
The results suggest “one reason that a large chunk of the population may be able to deal with the virus is that we may have some small residual immunity from our exposure to common cold viruses,” says viral immunologist Steven Varga of the University of Iowa. However, neither of the studies attempted to establish that people with crossreactivity don’t become as ill from COVID-19.
Before these studies, researchers didn’t know whether T cells played a role in eliminating SARS-CoV-2, or even whether they could provoke a dangerous immune system overreaction. “These papers are really helpful because they start to define the T cell component of the immune response,” Rasmussen says. But she and other scientists caution that the results do not mean that people who have recovered from COVID-19 are protected from reinfection.
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