‘Nasal magic’ may be keeping kids safe from COVID-19, researchers explain

STANFORD, Calif. — In a recent study, researchers explored why children, particularly those under five years-old, show remarkable resilience against COVID-19 compared to adults. A team from Stanford Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center now believes the answer could focus on “nasal magic,” which is keeping COVID symptoms down while keeping antibody counts high. This work might hold the key to understanding children’s natural defenses and future therapeutic interventions for adults.

Researchers studied 54 infants infected with SARS-CoV-2 before reaching age two. They compared them to 27 other children and several dozen adults who tested either negative or positive for the virus. The team collected nasal and blood samples over time, allowing for longitudinal data analysis. The study was initially funded to research influenza in infants but shifted focus due to the pandemic’s urgency. By adapting their research goals, the team collected and analyzed data specific to COVID-19 rapidly.

“For almost every infectious disease, the most vulnerable populations are at the extremes of age — the very young and the very old. But with COVID-19, the young are spared while the old are emphatically not. That’s been a mystery,” says Stanford Medicine professor Bali Pulendran, Ph.D., in a university release.

Child getting PCR COVID test
(© Peakstock – stock.adobe.com)

This enigma has puzzled scientists since the beginning of the pandemic, as most viruses don’t discriminate based on age in this manner. The unique nature of COVID-19 has led researchers to dig deeper into the factors that might explain this discrepancy. Pulendran’s involvement in this study brings decades of expertise in immunology, adding significant weight to these findings.

Infants’ blood-borne antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 either plateaued at a high level or rose throughout a 300-day observation period. In contrast, adult antibody levels dropped significantly within six months. These findings challenge the existing understanding of immune response across age groups. The prolonged stability or increase in infants’ antibodies could be a significant clue in understanding why they experience less severe symptoms.

“In no case did we see a decline,” Pulendran mentions, emphasizing the surprising stability of infants’ antibody response to the virus.

The study’s findings contradict much of what is known about immune responses to viral infections. The stability of antibodies in infants could be a game-changer in how we approach not just COVID-19 but perhaps other viral diseases. This long-lasting immune response in infants opens up new avenues for research and treatment.

The findings could have vast implications for COVID-19 treatments and preventive measures. The study suggests that children’s natural defenses against COVID-19 may lie in their nasal tracts, which offer a remarkably effective immune response that could be harnessed to protect adults, possibly through nasal sprays or improved vaccines.

If these findings are confirmed, they could change how we look at respiratory diseases and their treatments. The idea of a nasal spray as a preventive measure is particularly appealing, as it would be a non-invasive and potentially widely accessible solution.

“If we’ve indeed identified a source of infants’ resilience to COVID-19, we should exploit it,” Pulendran states, hinting at the future development of novel therapies or preventative measures based on these findings.

By “exploiting” this resilience, researchers could develop targeted therapies that mimic the natural defenses found in children. This could lead to a new disease prevention and treatment era, extending beyond just COVID-19.

The findings are published in the journal Cell.

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About the Author

Alexander Olumese, PharmD

Alexander Olumese is a DMV-based registered pharmacist and medical writer. He has over 10 years of experience with community and hospital pharmacies, as well as over 3 years within the pharmaceutical industry as a medical writer within medical affairs. He has a background in a variety of therapeutic areas. However, he specializes in cardiovascular disease, oncology, pain medicine, and infectious disease.

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