Scientists around the world are scrambling to find an effective treatment for patients in serious condition from COVID-19 and a vaccine to prevent healthy people from being infected.
But researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Interdisciplinary Center- Herzliya (IDC), Israel, and Stanford University in California suggest that putting the immune system into action even before the body is attacked by the virus could be a better approach. It may improve the immune system’s response to the virus, shorten the period of illness, reduce the risk of complications and even shorten the period of infection. “We hope that following our article, clinical trials will be launched that will test the new approach,” the researchers wrote in the journal Open Biology under the title “A new perspective for mitigation of SARS-CoV-2 infection: priming the innate immune system for viral attack.”
In the case of COVID-19 infection, the virus reaches the infected person’s body systems, penetrates cells, multiplies and spreads to various tissues. At this time, the virus does its best to evade detection by the immune system. The Coronavirus seems to excel in this especially relative to the average virus – in some people, especially those who later develop complications, the virus manages to escape detection and multiply unhindered for a week or more. Once the virus is detected, a race begins between the immune system, which awakens a variety of means to eliminate it – activating thousands of genes and producing hundreds of proteins and hormones that are responsible for triggering alarm mechanisms, mobilizing reserves and reserves, and attacking the virus directly and indirectly, spreading itself further by infecting more people.
The four researchers are Dr. Oren Kolodny from the ecology, evolution and behavior department and Dr. Michael Berger from the Faculty of Medicine at the Hebrew University, Dr. Yoav Ram from the Arazi School of Computer Science at IDC Herzliya, and Prof. Marcus Feldman from Stanford. They decided to approach the problem differently.
The authors maintain that the way to win the race could be to start before the buzzer is sounded – it may not be fair in competitive sports, but in fighting a global epidemic, the move is legitimate. When the pathogen is under attack even before it meets the virus, this will cause the immune system to race, arm itself and get organized. When the virus arrives, the immune system will quickly recognize it before it has spread and attack it effectively.
The result may be a short period of illness and reduced risk of complications, thus avoiding hospitalization or life-threatening conditions. Furthermore, the researchers point out that even if the approach is used only in relation to young adults who are not in a risk group and most of whom were only asymptomatically ill even if they were infected, this will be of great importance, as early stimulation of the immune system will significantly shorten the duration.
So how do you make the immune system think it’s under attack before the real attack begins? It turns out that Western medicine excels at this – every routine vaccine we get such as polio or flu vaccine is based on the immune system being activated in two stages. In the first step, which occurs immediately after vaccination, general mechanisms are activated against viruses wherever they are. In the second stage, about a week after the vaccine is given, specific mechanisms go into action against the virus against which the vaccine is developed (including an immune memory that will be useful if and when the virus appears). In terms of the immune system, in the period of time that takes between a few days and weeks, it is at war with a real virus. The researchers estimate that if COVID-19 infects during this period, the system will detect and kill it quickly and effectively.
The question arises what is the connection between excitation against the polio virus, for example, and excitation against corona? After all, the immune system is specific, and the whole idea of the vaccine is to create a specific immune memory against the virus for which the vaccine is intended. In fact, in fighting the virus, the winning blow – the one that finally kills the invading virus – is often given by the adaptive immune system, which learns to recognize specific antigens.
But much of the fight against viruses, perhaps even the vast majority, is conducted through proteins and hormones that are not specific to the specific disease but work against a broad spectrum of viruses or are responsible for communicating the immune system within itself and with various body systems to mobilize or create the necessary resources.
Many of these will go into action in response to the flu vaccine, for example, and if within a few weeks of the getting the shot an individual is infected with COVID-19, some of the immune cells will still be recruited, mobilized and ready for action to eliminate COVID-19 rapidly and efficiently.
“We propose a novel therapeutic approach that to date has been under-explored in the COVID-19 epidemic. We suggest that priming an individual’s immune system during active epidemic, by inducing a short-term anti-viral systemic activation of the innate immune system, may reduce the infection’s severity, length and probability of complications,” they wrote.
The researchers stress that their idea at this stage is only a hypothesis that requires careful examination. It should be ensured, for example, that the early stimulation does not have the opposite effect – that the immune system is exhausted and weakened when the corona virus itself arrives, or alternatively, that it is so provocative that the overreaction that occurs when the corona virus arrives will cause severe damage. According to the researchers, “our article is intended to provoke discussion in the medical and academic community, and we hope that it will be followed by clinical trials examining the new approach we offer. Its great potential lies in the fact that it is simple, well-established and well-researched.”
It would not be harmful for any adult to get their booster shot anyway, they concluded. “It is important to emphasize, we really do not recommend people to try to stimulate their immune systems independently. The risks of such a thing in the context of the corona pandemic have not been tested yet, and such a test should be done in an orderly and controlled manner. We believe there is potential here, and hope it will be tested in the near future.”