Schools have reopened in a few states in India, and undoubtedly, the fear of the virus still hangs thick in classrooms. However, a study by Berlin Institute of Health may bring some solace to parents who are worried sick about their children’s health.
It has been known for some time that Covid-19 infections among children are not as severe as those in adults, and now, a team of scientists from the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH), Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, University of Leipzig Medical Center, and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, have been able to demonstrate the molecular mechanisms behind the heightened immunity among kids. They were able to show that the child’s immune system is much more active in the upper airways than in adults, making it better armed to fight off the virus. The researchers have now published their findings in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
“We wanted to understand why viral defense appears to work so much better in children than in adults,” explains Professor Irina Lehmann, head of the Molecular Epidemiology Unit at the BIH. Their study found that the ability to recognise the virus genome was stronger in children than adults.
The BIH website provides details about the study. A team of researchers led by Professor Marcus Mall, director of the Department of Pediatric Respiratory Medicine, Immunology and Critical Care Medicine at Charité, collected samples from the nasal mucosa of both healthy and SARS-CoV-2-infected children and adults and studied how the disease progressed. “Most of the infected children had only mild symptoms like a cold or slight fever, and these subsided after a few days,” explains Mall. In the samples obtained from the pediatricians, the BIH researchers performed single-cell transcriptome analyses – in other words, they examined which genes were transcribed or read in which cells and how frequently this occurred. A total of 268,745 cells from 42 children and 44 adults were analysed for this study.
The comparison of the cells obtained from the children and adults provided a surprising result. The immune and epithelial cells of the nasal mucosa of healthy children were already on high alert and prepared to fight SARS-CoV-2. A rapid immune response against the virus requires the activation of so-called pattern recognition receptors, which recognise the genome of the virus – the viral RNA – and trigger an interferon response. When SARS-CoV-2 infects a cell, it normally overrides this early warning system. The result is usually a fairly weak antiviral response, which allows the virus to proliferate massively in the cell. However, in the children’s cells studied, this pattern recognition system was significantly stronger than in adults, enabling the system to quickly recognise and combat the virus as soon as it enters the cell.
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