UCL News


Scientists aim to unravel immune system’s response to COVID-19

31 August 2020

Researchers at UCL will play a leading role in the new UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC), which aims to better understand the immune response to COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab

UK-CIC has received £6.5m funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and brings together leading immunologists from 17 UK research institutions including UCL.

Working together the researchers aim to better understand how the immune system interacts with the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to help develop better diagnostics, treatments and vaccines against COVID-19.

The scientists will also try to understand why some people suffer from severe life-threatening COVID-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections but can still transmit the virus.  Importantly, these studies will determine when and how immunity persists or whether people can become re-infected.

The UK-CIC will investigate five key questions (themes):

  • Why are some people's immune systems better able to fight off the virus?
  • What parts of the immune system are involved in generating a protective response against COVID-19 and how long does this immunity last?
  • How does the immune system respond to SARS-CoV-2 on a molecular and cellular level and what happens when the immune system overreacts?
  • Does immunity to previous infection with seasonal coronaviruses (which cause the common cold) alter a person's outcome with SARS-CoV-2?
  • How does SARS-CoV-2 'hide from' the immune system and how can this be tackled?

Professor Mala Maini (UCL Infection & Immunity) is one of five immunologists making up the UK-CIC Operational Team. She will coordinate a theme bringing together researchers from several centres of excellence to focus on the role of cross-reactive T cells in COVID-19. This theme will ask whether pre-existing T cell immunity to other closely related coronaviruses  can influence the highly variable outcome of infection with SARS-CoV-2 in different age groups and geographic regions.

Professor Hans Stauss and Professor Benny Chain (both UCL Infection & Immunity) will investigate in detail the genetic profile of immune cells that can selectively kill cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They will identify the receptors that the immune cells use to specifically recognise and kill the infected cells. The researchers will also explore whether the identified receptors can be used for gene therapy of COVID-19 by re-programming a large number of immune cells to attack SARS-CoV-2 infected cells.

Better understanding of these immune responses, particularly the T cell response, could provide targets for new therapies to treat COVID-19 and inform the efforts to develop a vaccine.

The project will use samples and data from major UK COVID-19 projects already underway, and funded by UKRI and NIHR, including ISARIC-4C (characterising and following more than 75,000 hospitalised patients with COVID-19) and the genomic studies COG-UK (sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes) and GenOMICC (sequencing the genomes of people with COVID-19).

Professor Maini, a viral immunologist, said: “This consortium is bringing immunologists from around the country together to coordinate our studies in an unprecedented manner. By sharing reagents, samples, ideas and early findings, we will accelerate our progress in addressing vital questions about how the immune response dictates the outcome of SARS-CoV-2 infection and what level of ongoing protection (immune memory) can be achieved.”

UK-CIC is led by Professor Paul Moss from the University of Birmingham and aims to deliver meaningful public health benefit within 12 months to increase our ability to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is supported by the British Society for Immunology, whose President, Professor Arne Akbar (and UCL Medicine) will chair the UK-CIC Advisory Board, which will deliver independent oversight of the consortium, and input to its strategic priority.

Professor Akbar said: “Throughout this pandemic, the immunology research community has worked rapidly and effectively to increase our understanding of how this novel virus interacts with the immune system. With this significant investment, our scientists can now work together at a national scale to improve our knowledge of the immunology of COVID-19 – an aspect that is critical for long-term control of this pandemic.”



  • Image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. Credit: NIAID on Flickr CC BY 2.0

Media contact 

Henry Killworth 

Mob: + (0) 7881 833274

E: h.killworth [at] ucl.ac.uk