[S]cientists baffled by [COVID-19’s] ferocity have wondered whether the body’s vanguard virus fighter, a molecular messenger called type I interferon, is missing in action in some severe cases. Two papers published online in Science [recently] confirm that suspicion. They reveal that in a significant minority of patients with serious COVID-19, the interferon response has been crippled by genetic flaws or by rogue antibodies that attack interferon itself.
“Together these two papers explain nearly 14% of severe COVID-19 cases. That is quite amazing,” says Qiang Pan- Hammarström, an immunologist at the Karolinska Institute.
Tadatsugu Taniguchi, a pioneering interferon scientist and emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, calls the discoveries “remarkable.” He says they highlight the “critical” role of type I interferons in SARS-CoV-2 infection and the development of potentially lethal COVID-19.
The paired studies have immediate practical implications. Synthetic interferons, long used to treat other diseases, might help some at-risk patients, as might other therapies aimed at removing the damaging antibodies. A common kind of antibody test could be readily developed and return answers in hours. Those found to be at high risk of developing severe COVID- 19 could take precautions to avoid exposure or be prioritized for vaccination, says Elina Zuniga, an immunologist who studies interferons at the University of California, San Diego.