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World Health Organization leaders at a press briefing on COVID-19, WHO headquarters in Geneva. © Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images

The Importance of Innate Immunity Goes Beyond This Pandemic, Has Longstanding Implications and Major Impact Globally

Top scientists call on global health agencies to fund innate immunity research as additional measure to fight pandemic viruses

Published on January 10, 2021

The Global Virus Network (GVN) and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis co-hosted a December 11, 2020, international symposium on innate immunity and COVID-19. Participants included nearly 950 registrants ranging from eminent virologists, researchers, health care professionals, health activists, government officials, and representatives from the World Health Organization. GVN now joins top scientists worldwide to make an urgent appeal to funding agencies and regulatory authorities to prioritize innate immunity research as a means to fight pandemics.

Symposium speakers reviewed a range of topics, but a common recurring theme is the idea that innate immunity is an effective tool to address not only COVID-19 but also future pandemics. Select quotes from speakers at the event include:

“One aspect of global collaborations is the realization that needs in one country shift at a very different rate than needs in another country even though we go through crises at the same time. Here in the US, while the majority of the population wait for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, my colleagues in, for example, Ghana and Zambia are thinking of different priorities, and that is the reason we must think of science globally,” said Dr. Michael S. Avidan, Head of the Department of Anesthesiology, Washington University School of Medicine, USA.

“The importance of innate immunity, though very timely now due to COVID-19 goes beyond this pandemic, and has longstanding implications,” said Dr. Christian Brechot, President of GVN and Professor at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, USA. “Clearly this is an underappreciated field and I can firmly say that we have evidence of innate immunity having a major impact, globally. I am glad that the GVN has been able to co-host this one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary symposium to encourage the scientific community, funders, and policymakers to think outside the box.”

“We can scale innate immunity research by remembering that global health crises should not be distinguished by global north or south, by taking notice even when health crises are not as global as cholera or HIV. We should remember that during the Ebola outbreak, we had diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics. Yet, it caused the devastation that it did,” said Dr. Annie Sparrow, Special Advisor to the Director-General, World Health Organization, Assistant Professor, Population Health Science & Policy, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA. “Clearly, vaccines are not the be-all and end-all answers to pandemics, and we have to prioritize marginalized yet potent fields like innate immunity research if we want to fight the next pandemic with some efficacy.”

“The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is an RNA respiratory virus, which is highly contagious and has now claimed more than 1.9 million lives globally. It’s fair to say that this virus is particularly susceptible to innate immunity,” said Dr. Robert Gallo, The Homer & Martha Gudelsky Distinguished Professor in Medicine, Co-Founder and Director, Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Co-Founder and International Scientific Advisor of GVN, USA. “Though I see promising developments in the messenger RNA vaccines it could still take a year and then some to make the vaccines accessible to all. Utilizing vaccines that stimulate innate immunity can save lives until effective ‘classical’ vaccines are developed and distributed during pandemics.”

“Scientists involved in vaccine development often speak of innate immunity playing an accessory role in the development of adaptive response such as from a vaccine, while evidence suggests innate immunity is also an essential part of the mechanism of Live Attenuated Vaccines (LAVs) effectiveness,” said Dr. Konstantin Chumakov, Director of the Global Virus Network Center of Excellence in Maryland, USA.

“If we infect a plant and the plant survives, then the plant grows resistant to a certain disease. Keeping this theory in mind when we performed the same experiment in the mouse model, it clearly demonstrated that BCG vaccines could indeed protect against heterologous infections,” said Dr. Mihai Netea, Head of the Division of Experimental Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Nijmegen University Nijmegen Medical Center, Netherlands, and member of the GVN SARS-CoV-2 Task Force. “When we performed the experiment on humans with attenuated yellow fever vaccine virus, we found that individuals that received the BCG attenuated vaccine had significantly less virus in their bodies than the ones who received a placebo.” Dr. Netea pointed to plants and insects as complex organisms live for years without any vaccines and depend only on innate immunity responses.

Associate Writer