Can a prior rhinovirus infection protect against COVID-19?

Can prior exposure to other respiratory viruses like the common cold before infection by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the pathogen responsible for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), offer protection against COVID-19?

Study: Dynamic innate immune response determines susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection and early replication kinetics. Image Credit: Lucky Step /

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that rhinovirus, which is the virus that is most commonly responsible for the common cold, accelerates interferon-stimulated genes (ISG), which are early response molecules in the immune system. The increased expression of these genes was found to prevent SARS-CoV-2 replication within airway tissues that were previously infected with rhinovirus.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, shed light on the use of interferons (IFNs), which are immune system proteins, in COVID-19 patients. The researchers also noted that IFN treatment could be used for prophylactic purposes in high-risk patients who have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

The study

The initial replication of SARS-CoV-2 in the upper respiratory tract is needed to establish infection. In SARS-CoV-2 infection, the virus enters lung cells through the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor. The cell-free and macrophage-phagocytosed virus can then spread to other organs and infect ACE2-expressing cells at local sites, which can cause multi-organ injury.

Previous studies demonstrated that at the later stages of COVID-19, high IFN levels coincide with a more severe disease that is likely due to a hyperactive immune response. However, recent evidence has demonstrated that ISG instead offers protection during SARS-CoV-2 infection.

This work was largely inspired by previous studies that found that common cold viruses may offer protection against the influenza virus. The researchers aimed to determine whether rhinoviruses would provide a similar beneficial effect against SARS-CoV-2.

Study findings

First, the team sought to capture early host-virus dynamics in the human nasopharynx using serial patient samples. Through the use of transcriptomics and biomarker-based tracking in these samples, the researchers observed a robust induction of ISG in the airway mucosa of these COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, ISG levels were found to align with viral load levels in these patients, with patients with the highest viral load tending to have higher ISG expression levels than those with the lowest viral loads.

The researchers also studied the functional consequences of modulating the host innate immune response in primary human airway epithelial air-liquid interface organoid cultures. When the researchers infected lab-grown human airway tissue with SARS-CoV-2, they found that the viral load in the tissue doubled every six hours for the first three days.

Meanwhile, the replication of SARS-CoV-2 was halted entirely in the tissue that was previously exposed to rhinovirus. When the antiviral defenses were blocked, SARS-CoV-2 successfully replicated in the tissues previously exposed to the common cold virus.

“Rhinovirus infection before SARS-CoV-2 exposure accelerated ISG responses and prevented SARS-CoV-2 replication. Conversely, blocking ISG induction during SARS-CoV-2 infection enhanced viral replication from a low infectious dose.”

The results showed that SARS-CoV-2 induces an IFN response in the nasopharynx across diverse patient groups. The same protective defenses were found to slow infection with SARS-CoV-2 even without prior exposure to rhinovirus.

Study takeaways

Taken together, the current study found that the defenses mediated by ISG at the time of SARS-CoV-2 exposure play an important role in determining infection severity. The heterologous antiviral response that is triggered by a different virus can therefore offer protection against SARS-CoV-2.

The study findings also explain the phenomenon that occurs when common colds are frequent at certain times of the year, during which the rates of infections with other viruses like influenza tend to decrease. However, the researchers fear that such respiratory viruses can become stronger as a result of their dormancy over the past year due to social distancing measures. When these restrictions are eased, cases of common colds and other viral infections may arise.

IFN treatment now holds promise as a preventive treatment for COVID-19. The researchers warned that the efficacy of this treatment approach will likely depend on the timing of its use. Based on theories, IFN treatment could be used as a prophylactic measure in high-risk patients.

Currently, IFN treatments are being investigated in clinical trials, which have shown their beneficial use if given early in the course of the infection. In addition to vaccination efforts, finding a potential preventive measure for COVID-19 remains crucial as the world continues to grapple with this disease.

Journal reference:
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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