Can Common Colds Protect People From COVID-19?

Previous coronavirus infected patients had significantly lower odds of being admitted to the intensive care unit
young boy in bed sick with a cold

Being previously infected with the coronaviruses that cause the “common cold” may decrease the severity of SARS-CoV-2 infections, according to researchers at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine.

This new study published on September 30, 2020, also demonstrates that the immunity built up from previous non-SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infections does not prevent individuals from getting COVID-19. 

Published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the findings provide important insight into the immune response against SARS-CoV-2, which could have significant implications on COVID-19 vaccine development.

While the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is a relatively new pathogen, there are many other types of coronaviruses that are endemic in humans and can cause the “common cold” and pneumonia. These coronaviruses share some genetic sequences with SARS-CoV-2, and the immune responses from these coronaviruses can cross-react against SARS-CoV-2.

People around the world commonly get infected with human coronaviruses 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1 state the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In this study, the researchers looked at electronic medical record data from individuals who had a respiratory panel test (CRP-PCR) result between May 2015 and March 11, 2020. The CRP-PCR detects diverse respiratory pathogens including the endemic “common cold” coronaviruses. 

They also examined data from individuals who were tested for SARS-CoV-2 between March and June 2020. 

After adjusting for age, gender, body mass index, and diabetes mellitus diagnosis, COVID-19 hospitalized patients who had a previous positive CRP-PCR test result for a coronavirus had significantly lower odds of being admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU), and lower trending odds of requiring mechanical ventilation during COVID. 

The probability of survival was also significantly higher in COVID-19 hospitalized patients with a previous positive test result for a “common cold” coronavirus. However, a previous positive test result for a coronavirus did not prevent someone from getting infected with SARS-CoV-2. 

“Our results show that people with evidence of a previous infection from a “common cold” coronavirus have less severe COVID-19 symptoms,” said Manish Sagar, MD, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at Boston Medical Center, associate professor of medicine and microbiology at Boston University School of Medicine and the study’s co-corresponding author, in a related press statement. 

Another interesting finding from this study, the authors note, is that immunity may prevent COVID-19 in ways that are different from preventing infection by SARS-CoV-2. 

This is demonstrated by the fact that the patient groups had similar likelihoods of infection but differing likelihoods of ending up in the ICU or dying.

“People are routinely infected with coronaviruses that are different from SARS-CoV-2, and these study results could help identify patients at lower and greater risk of developing complications after being infected with SARS-CoV-2,” added Joseph Mizgerd, ScD, professor of medicine, microbiology, and biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine who is the study’s co-corresponding author.

There is a growing body of research looking into specific ways that the SARS-CoV-2 virus impacts different populations, including why some people are infected and are asymptomatic, as well as what increases one’s mortality as a result of infection.

The CDC last updated its list of ‘people at high risk for COVID-19 on October 6, 2020.

“We hope that this study can be the springboard for identifying the types of immune responses for not necessarily preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection, but rather limiting the damage from COVID-19.”

This study was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R35 HL-135756 to JPM, K24 AI-145661 to MS, 5T32 AI-052074-13 to PS, and R01 GM-122876 to LFW). Sagar’s work is also facilitated by the Providence/Boston Center for AIDS Research.

Boston Medical Center (BMC) is a private, not-for-profit, 514-bed, academic medical center that is the primary teaching affiliate of Boston University School of Medicine.

CoronavirusToday publishes research-based COVID-19 pandemic news.