An Unlikely Hero: How the Common Cold Shields Children From COVID-19

COVID 19 Treatment Artist Concept

Researchers from Karolinska Institute found that children’s memory T cells generated by common colds can react to SARS-CoV-2, potentially explaining their milder COVID-19 symptoms. The memory T-cell response to coronaviruses was observed to develop as early as age two, with reactions being stronger earlier in life and weakening as individuals age.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical professionals and researchers observed that children and teenagers who contracted the virus exhibited milder symptoms compared to adults. This phenomenon may be attributed to the presence of memory T cells in children, which were generated as a result of previous exposure to common colds and provided a prior level of immunity to COVID-19.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have now conducted a study using blood samples from children collected prior to the pandemic, and they have discovered memory T cells that respond to cells infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Four coronaviruses cause common colds

A possible explanation for this immunity in children is that they already had colds caused by one of the four coronaviruses causing seasonal common cold symptoms. This could stimulate an immune response with T cells able to also react to cells infected with SARS-CoV-2.

This new study reinforces this hypothesis and shows that T cells previously activated by the OC43 virus can cross-react against SARS-CoV-2.

“These reactions are especially strong early in life and grow much weaker as we get older,” says the study’s corresponding author Annika Karlsson, research group leader at the Department of Laboratory Medicine, Karolinska Institutet. “Our findings show how the T-cell response develops and changes over time and can guide the future monitoring and development of vaccines.”

Strong immunity at the age of two

The results indicate that the memory T-cell response to coronaviruses develops as early as the age of two. The study was based on 48 blood samples from two- and six-year-old children, and 94 samples from adults between the ages of 26 and 83. The analysis also included blood samples from 58 people who had recently recovered from COVID-19.

“Next, we’d like to do analogous studies of younger and older children, teenagers, and young adults to better track how the immune response to coronaviruses develops from childhood to adulthood,” says Marion Humbert, a postdoctoral researcher currently at the Department of Medicine Huddinge, Karolinska Institutet, joint first author with Anna Olofsson, doctoral student at the Department of Laboratory Medicine.

Reference: “Functional SARS-CoV-2 cross-reactive CD4+ T cells established in early childhood decline with age” by Marion Humbert, Anna Olofsson, David Wullimann, Julia Niessl, Emma B. Hodcroft, Curtis Cai, Yu Gao, Ebba Sohlberg, Robert Dyrdak, Flora Mikaeloff, Ujjwal Neogi, Jan Albert, Karl-Johan Malmberg, Fridtjof Lund-Johansen, Soo Aleman, Linda Björkhem-Bergman, Maria C. Jenmalm, Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren, Marcus Buggert and Annika C. Karlsson, 14 March 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2220320120

The paper is the result of a collaborative study among researchers at Karolinska Institutet, the universities of Bern (Switzerland), Oslo (Norway) and Linköping University (Sweden).

The study was financed by the Swedish Research Council, Region Stockholm (CIMED), Karolinska Institutet, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, and the European Research Council. Karl-Johan Malmberg, Ebba Sohlberg, and Soo Aleman receive fees from companies and organizations outside this research project (see the paper for more details); all other researchers report no conflicts of interest.

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