CDC / Alissa Ecker MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

Unprecedented national effort by UK immunologists to search for answers on COVID-19 

Sanger Institute researchers join national research projects to investigate the role of our immune system in tackling COVID-19

Three new UK-wide studies, bringing together scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 16 other research institutions, will receive £8.4 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to understand immune responses to the novel coronavirus.

The scientists aim to develop better tests to define immunity, to study the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and to understand why some people suffer from severe life-threatening COVID-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections but can still transmit the virus. Importantly these studies will determine when and how immunity persists or whether people can become re-infected.

Together, it is hoped these studies will improve the treatment of patients and inform the development of vaccines and therapies.

The UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC) will receive £6.5 million to bring together leading immunologists from 17 research institutions*. The consortium will investigate key questions including:

  • How long does immunity from COVID-19 last?
  • Why are some people’s immune systems better able to fight off the virus?
  • Why do some people’s immune responses cause damage, especially to the lungs?
  • How does the virus ‘hide from’ the immune system and how can this be tackled?
  • Does immunity to previous infection with seasonal coronaviruses (which cause the common cold) alter a person’s outcome with SARS-CoV-2?

Better understanding of these immune responses, particularly the T cell response, could provide targets for new therapies to treat COVID-19 and inform the efforts to develop a vaccine.

The project will use samples and data from major UK COVID-19 projects already underway, and funded by UKRI and NIHR, including ISARIC-4C (characterising and following more than 75,000 hospitalised patients with COVID-19) and the genomic studies COG-UK (sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes) and GenOMICC (sequencing the genomes of people with COVID-19).

Sanger Institute researchers and their collaborators will investigate the role of the immune system and effect of age in determining the variation in susceptibility to infection with SARS-CoV-2. The researchers will also analyse the impact our immune response to the virus has on our organs, with the aim of developing new treatments.

“UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium funding will allow us to study how COVID-19 damages patient’s lungs, kidneys and heart. To better understand COVID-19 pathology, we will examine post-mortem tissue samples from severely ill patients using new technologies that combine histological and genomic analysis. These experiments will allow us to understand the cellular damage and immunological response in COVID-19 patients at a deep level and aid the development of new treatments.”

Dr Omer BayraktarGroup Leader at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

“I am delighted that we are joining this monumental effort to understand the role our immune system plays in determining why some people get seriously ill with COVID-19. We will apply single cell and atlas technologies to investigate samples from COVID-19 patients within the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium. This work will link to the larger Human Cell Atlas COVID-19 community** where increasing knowledge and insights will be openly shared to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr Sarah TeichmannCo-chair of the Human Cell Atlas Organising Committee, and Head of Cellular Genetics and Senior Group Leader at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

“Understanding the complexities of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is key to successfully developing new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines against COVID-19. The UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium will see the UK immunology community come together in an unprecedented way to answer questions that are crucial in helping us control this pandemic, such as how effective immunity is developed and why individuals respond differently to the disease.

“The UK is a world leader in immunology research and it’s an honour to lead this consortium to deliver a co-ordinated and agile national research programme to build our knowledge of this disease, which will translate into meaningful benefit for patients. There is so much that we still need to learn about how the novel coronavirus interacts with our immune systems and, with this investment, we have a unique opportunity to answer these key questions and hasten effective pandemic control.”

Professor Paul Mossleader of the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium, based at the University of Birmingham

“The UK is funding a collaboration of world-leading immunologists to investigate the major unanswered questions related to coronavirus immunity. Finding out more about the immune response to COVID-19 will be key to developing better treatments and vaccines and improving public health strategies.”

Professor Fiona WattChief Executive, Medical Research Council, part of UKRI 

“Understanding how our immune systems respond to COVID-19 is key to solving some of the important questions about this new disease, including whether those who have had the disease develop immunity and how long this lasts, and why some are more severely affected.

“This investment by the NIHR and UKRI will help immunology experts to discover how our immune systems respond to SARS-CoV-2, including our T cell response. This is vital information to help prevent and treat the disease.”

Professor Chris WhittyChief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR

“Thanks to the brilliant work of our world-leading scientists and researchers, we continue to gain greater knowledge and understanding of coronavirus, enabling us to rapidly develop new treatments, as well as potential new vaccines.

“These three studies will help further improve our understanding of people’s immune responses to coronavirus, ensuring that the UK continues to play a critical role in the global effort to treat and defeat it.”

Amanda SollowayScience Minister

These studies build on the UK’s world-class expertise and capability in global heath and infectious disease that has already shaped our understanding of the pandemic and is informing measures to tackle it.

More information

*The full list of research institutions include the University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge and Wellcome Sanger Institute, UCL, King’s College London, Imperial College London, University of Liverpool, University of Manchester, Newcastle University, University of Oxford, University of Sheffield, University of York, Cardiff University, University of Dundee, University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow and the Bradford Institute for Health Research.


**For more information on the Human Cell Atlas COVID-19 community, visit:

Selected websites

  • UK Research and Innovation

    UK Research and Innovation works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas. 


    Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £8 billion, UK Research and Innovation brings together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England.

  • National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)

    The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

    • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
    • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
    • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
    • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
    • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy

    The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

    Please visit to learn about other studies that have been given urgent public health status and the single, national prioritisation process that has been established to prevent duplication of effort and to ensure that the resources and capacity of the health and care system to support COVID-19 research are not exceeded.

  • The Wellcome Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Sanger Institute is a world leading genomics research centre. We undertake large-scale research that forms the foundations of knowledge in biology and medicine. We are open and collaborative; our data, results, tools and technologies are shared across the globe to advance science. Our ambition is vast – we take on projects that are not possible anywhere else. We use the power of genome sequencing to understand and harness the information in DNA. Funded by Wellcome, we have the freedom and support to push the boundaries of genomics. Our findings are used to improve health and to understand life on Earth. Find out more at or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and on our Blog.

  • About Wellcome

    Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation.