The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the efforts of the international scientific community to gain a much deeper understanding of how the immune system works (a system with a complexity comparable to the nervous system, but most of which is still unexplored). In the United States, in particular, researchers from the Chan School of Public Health of Harvard University (Boston), together with researchers from the Human Vaccines Project, have launched a very ambitious project called The Human Immunomics Initative (HII), with the aim of addressing critical knowledge gaps, while simultaneously accelerating the discovery of new diagnostic systems and therapies to eradicate the coronavirus, among others. The task force, supported by academic centers, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, is made up of immunologists, epidemiologists, experts in mathematical and computational models and artificial intelligence specialists, and aims to create a synergy that enables a complete map to be made in the shortest time possible.
Seventy different vaccine “prototypes” against COVID-19 have already been developed worldwide, and three of these have reached the initial clinical trial stages. The HII project will contribute to this research effort, for example, by explaining the differences in the immune response of the different age groups, focusing in particular on the elderly, who have been most affected by the virus. “Decline or dysfunction of the immune system among people age 70 and older is a major public health issue”, said Jaap Goudsmit, adjunct professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at Harvard Chan School. “We are seeing this acutely now with COVID-19, which is mostly spread by younger people, but which older people die from at much higher rates”.
The HII researchers will, of course, also be called upon to answer the main question: what the vaccine target is (i.e. which part of the virus is to be chosen) and what the immune response is that we want to achieve. The experts will attempt to exploit the potential of artificial intelligence as much as possible, which enables huge amounts of data to be processed in a time unattainable by the single human mind, as well as potential vaccines to be tested virtually.
From a practical perspective, the project will use blood samples from thousands of people that are participating in epidemiological studies, many of which the experts from Harvard are already involved in.