Johns Hopkins launches center for COVID-19 immunity research

Center is part of an emergency $300 million NIH initiative to understand the causes of severe COVID-19 and develop an effective vaccination program

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Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have been jointly awarded a major grant from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to set up a center for research on the human serological immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The five-year grant will provide funding of more than $2 million per year to support studies—commencing immediately—of the immune elements that determine whether people get mild or severe COVID-19 illness following exposure to the virus. A better understanding of these immunological underpinnings of COVID-19 is expected to lead to effective treatments and vaccines.

The project, to be known as the Johns Hopkins Excellence in Pathogenesis and Immunity Center for SARS-CoV-2, or JH-EPICS, will be jointly led by Sabra Klein, professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School, and Andrea Cox, professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

"Our new center's goal is to combine Johns Hopkins' world-class expertise in immunology, virology, and biostatistics to map out the complexity of the immune response as it develops after infection—and to understand why that response can differ so greatly depending on age, gender, race, comorbidities such as obesity, and other factors," Klein says.

"Our new center's goal is to combine Johns Hopkins' world-class expertise in immunology, virology, and biostatistics to map out the complexity of the immune response as it develops after infection—and to understand why that response can differ..."
Sabra Klein
Professor, Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

Adds Cox: "A lot of researchers have been studying COVID-19 without dedicated resources, but with a center grant like this, we can support multiple investigators working as a team to understand some of the outstanding mysteries of this disease."

The NCI funding for the project comes from an emergency $306 million appropriation by Congress earlier this year aimed at establishing a "Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19" (SeroNet)—serology being the study of antibodies and other immune factors that circulate in the body in response to infection or vaccination. SeroNet is establishing eight Serological Sciences Centers of Excellence around the United States, of which JH-EPICS will be one.

Klein has expertise in antibody immunity, while Cox's research has focused on T-cell-mediated immunity and the evolutionarily older "innate immunity" provided by other cells and molecules. Projects under the new center will illuminate how each of these major elements of immunity develops after SARS-CoV-2 infection. The research will be conducted by Klein's and Cox's laboratories and by the laboratories of more than half a dozen other Hopkins scientists with expertise in immune genetics, autoimmunity, molecular virology, biostatistics, and other relevant fields.

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The center will draw upon the vast clinical resources of Hopkins Medicine, including thousands of blood samples taken from COVID-19 patients at all stages of infection and in both hospitalized patients and outpatients. The research will also leverage the advanced quantitative techniques of computational biologists and biostatisticians at the Bloomberg School to discover meaningful patterns amid enormous datasets.

The organization of the center team and the associated grant-awarding process was accomplished with unprecedented speed. "It has all happened in only a few months, which speaks to the urgency of this crisis," Cox says. The NIH grant process can typically take a year or more, though COVID-19 grants are being accelerated.

Although the likely availability of vaccines in the coming months may soon reduce the need for lockdowns and other social distancing measures, vaccines may not provide lifetime protection, and researchers generally expect that SARS-CoV-2 will continue to be a significant public health threat, requiring extensive research for the foreseeable future.

"It may become endemic and seasonal, and, like flu viruses, may always have the potential to cause severe illness in some people," Klein says. "So once we have vaccines, there will still be a need to study the immune response to the virus in relation to drug and antibody treatments as well as vaccines."