South African researchers examining how the body’s immune system responds to the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 have identified that T-cells in people who have had two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine continue to be robust in potentially protecting against severe illness, despite Omicron’s ability to evade other defenses.
The research raises hopes that similar responses might be present with other vaccines and within unvaccinated individuals who have already had COVID-19.
T-cells are a type of white blood cell that determine the body’s immune response to antigens — foreign substances — in the body.
While neutralizing antibodies produced by vaccines are designed to prevent infection from happening, which Omicron appears able to sidestep, T-cells recognize the virus once it has infected cells and then move to kill them.
The data are the result of some of the earliest lab testing to examine how effective T-cell response is against Omicron, and say that in samples of those vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the T-cell response remained 70 to 80 percent effective.
Wendy Burgers, an associate professor in the University of Cape Town’s Division of Medical Virology, who collaborated with Alessandro Sette and his team at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California, presented evidence of her team’s findings at a WHO symposium earlier this week.
Speaking to the Guardian, she said that the findings had confirmed their expectation that the body’s wider repertoire of immune responses to Omicron might help prevent more severe illness.
“Our research studied T-cells,” Burgers said. “Antibodies are always a good starting point for trying to see if a vaccine works, because what the antibodies do is block the pathogen getting into the cell in the first place.”
“When it breaches the defenses and cells become infected, that’s when T-cells come in and clear infected cells,” she said.
The issue of T-cell response to Omicron has been a missing part of the puzzle since the variant first emerged, amid evidence it was not only more infectious, but able to avoid antibody responses acquired from vaccination.
However, Burgers is cautious of using evidence of continued T-cell effectiveness as an explanation of why so far South Africa anecdotally appears to have experienced less severe illness from Omicron than other variants.
“It’s difficult to tease apart, and we will see different experiences of Omicron in different populations in different parts of the world,” she said.
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