Our researchers contribute to the fight against COVID-19

09 December 2020
Lady and man walking their dog through a field.

This week, research into the role of sex in people infected by COVID-19, the result of a partnership between researchers at the Centre for Adolescent Rheumatology Versus Arthritis at University College London (UCL) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) during lockdown, was published in Nature Communications.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, scientists globally have been working hard to learn more about the virus and the way it affects different people, in a hope that it brings us closer to developing new treatments and an effective vaccine.

Many of the researchers we fund are experts on the immune response through studying autoimmune conditions including inflammatory arthritis and lupus and are playing a vital role in studies to better understand the nature of the virus.

Noticing patterns in COVID-19 infections

Before a national lockdown was announced researchers at our Centre for Adolescent Rheumatology, working across UCL, UCLH and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and funded in partnership with GOSH Children’s Charity, who had previously looked at why women are more likely to get autoimmune conditions like lupus, noticed that men seemed to be suffering more from COVID-19.

They wondered whether it was just anecdotal that men got worse when infected with COVID-19 or whether there was actually some truth to it, and if so, what was the cause?

Together, colleagues at UCL and UCT who had all been part of previous research into the role of sex in autoimmune conditions began gathering COVID-19 reports from global hotspots to try answer these questions.

What did researchers discover about the role of sex in COVID-19?

The group worked at a remarkable speed to analyse data collected from 47 different countries from the beginning of January until the end of June 2020, while simultaneously summarising what they knew about sex differences in the immune system to make the information easily accessible to other scientists.

Over the course of a few weeks, they reviewed more than 3 million cases of COVID-19. They discovered that equal proportions of men and women were infected, meaning they had an equal chance of being infected, however, of those infected, they saw that men had almost 3 times the odds of needing admission to intensive care and 40% higher odds of dying from COVID-19 than women.

What causes the difference in severity between men and women?

While there are a number of reasons which could account for the sex difference the team reported on, and important factors, including age, ethnicity, lifestyle and the existence of other underlying health problems, require further study, these findings reveal an important trend in the nature of COVID-19.

Based on what we already know, men, in general, have poorer immune responses to many different infections, while women generally have a stronger immune response but are more likely to develop autoimmunity – where the immune system is ‘overactive’ and starts to fight their own bodies, such as in lupus and inflammatory arthritis.

Therefore, women may be more likely to exhibit a better response to early stages of COVID-19 than men. One of the many reasons is because women produce more interferon – a potent anti-viral protein. They also have more antibodies and have higher counts of T cells which are critical to the immune system’s function.

How will these findings be used to develop potential treatments?

Our researchers hope that the data from this study will empower other researchers to ask why we see these differences, and how we can exploit this information in the fight against COVID-19.

The findings show that sex differences in disease are important to note and may highlight key pathways that we could potentially target. This research could therefore help contribute to treatment and vaccine development, or to better predict who is at risk of severe disease.

Achieving more together

This global collaboration in the midst of COVID-19 is a testament to our researchers who volunteered their own time and expertise, working remotely and across countries to try to answer important questions about the virus.

It hasn’t been without additional challenges along the way, with team members falling ill having contracted the virus; or having to attend to their children during calls; facing the dangers of working in the frontline; or offering a hand with volunteer testing.

Their workspace had to be flexible and adaptive to make room for these circumstances, while contributing sections of writing to a live, online manuscript.

This partnership between research centres is an excellent example of how working with others can maximise the impact of research funding and allow us to achieve more than we could do on our own.

We’ll keep you posted on progress and updates, find out more about our research.