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New Hopkins center aims to explain why some become severely sick from COVID-19, fuel better treatments

Johns Hopkins researchers have launched a center to better understand how people’s immune systems respond to the coronavirus, information that could explain why some become more severely sick from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

The goal is to use the findings to produce better treatments and vaccines, said officials from Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Hopkins School of Medicine, which will share $2 million annually for 5 years from the National Cancer Institute.

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The funds come from an emergency $306 million congressional appropriation earlier this year to fund eight serological science centers that study antibodies, proteins that fight off infections. The Hopkins center will be known as the Johns Hopkins Excellence in Pathogenesis and Immunity Center for SARS-CoV-2, or JH-EPICS.

“Our new center’s goal is to combine Johns Hopkins' world-class expertise in immunology, virology, and biostatistics to map out the complexity of the immune response as it develops after infection — and to understand why that response can differ so greatly depending on age, gender, race, comorbidities such as obesity, and other factors,” said Sabra Klein, professor in the Bloomberg School’s department of molecular microbiology and immunology, who will run the center along with Dr. Andrea Cox, professor of medicine for Hopkins Medicine.

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Cox said researchers already have been investigating the virus but without this level of dedicated resources.

"With a center grant like this, we can support multiple investigators working as a team to understand some of the outstanding mysteries of this disease,” she said.

The center will include Klein’s and Cox’s labs, plus a half dozen other Hopkins labs focused on related fields to look at how immunity develops after a COVID-19 infection.

They will tap the blood samples taken from Hopkins’ hospitalized patients and outpatients at all stages of infection. They also will use computer techniques to uncover patterns in the data.

The scientists say there will be a need going forward for their findings to improve the vaccines likely to be approved in coming months, but unlikely to provide lifetime protection.

“It may become endemic and seasonal, and, like flu viruses, may always have the potential to cause severe illness in some people,” Klein said. “So once we have vaccines, there will still be a need to study the immune response to the virus in relation to drug and antibody treatments as well as vaccines.”

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