Perspective: COVID-19 highlights pressing need to better understand immunity, particularly in elderly

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of aging populations to emerging diseases and underscores the significant need to better understand immunity and vaccine response among the elderly, according to an April 17, 2020 New England Journal of Medicine Perspective piece co-authored by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams and Human Vaccine Project President and CEO Wayne Koff.

While scientists around the world are racing to develop a vaccine to control the pandemic, such efforts will be hamstrung by the scientific community’s limited understanding of how to generate effective immunity, particularly in the elderly. Moreover, the current experience of COVID-19 among aging populations “offers a window into the profound, long-term, global demographic challenges the world is facing,” Williams and Koff wrote, noting that it’s estimated there will be twice as many people over 65 as there are children under 5 by 2050. Given that estimate, studying immune responses in elderly populations is both critical to developing a vaccine for the current pandemic and for better protecting the elderly from numerous other health threats in the future, they argued.

The tools to decipher the principles of effective immunity in aging populations are available, according to the piece, but conducting longitudinal studies in aging populations and launching similar large-scale research efforts demands new forms of global collaboration that span diseases and sectors of society, and bring together academia, industry, government, and philanthropic organizations.

“Short-term efforts to quickly develop lifesaving vaccines and therapeutics are of the utmost importance,” they wrote. “In the long term, however, we will have to shift from investing primarily in disease-specific research to simultaneously targeting sufficient resources toward decoding the human immune system, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable populations. Such an effort could accelerate the development of new vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments—not just for Covid-19, but also for future emerging pathogens as well as the noncommunicable diseases of aging that are our major global killers. We need bold action as soon as possible to help all of humanity live longer and healthier lives.”

Read the New England Journal of Medicine piece: Covid-19 and Immunity in Aging Populations—A new research agenda

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Human Immunomics Initiative will decode immune system, speed new vaccines (Harvard Chan School release)