Covid ‘signature’ found: Swiss scientists say they detected ‘biomarker’ that helps predict severe coronavirus cases early

Patients at risk of contracting a severe case of Covid-19 may now be able to get timely treatment thanks to a new method developed by Swiss researchers, who studied the behavior of natural killer T cells in infected people.

Detecting and treating life-threatening forms of the novel coronavirus disease before the acute symptoms kick in has been a challenge for medics since the start of the pandemic. Now, a team from the Swiss University of Zurich might have found a solution to this problem, a press release by the university says.

The researchers, who teamed up with scientists from Germany’s Tuebingen and France’s Toulouse and Nantes, discovered a specific “biomarker” capable of predicting the development of a severe Covid-19 case at the very early stages.

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The key element here is the natural killer T cells found in a patient’s blood. These cells are a type of white blood cells engaged in an immune response. According to the Swiss scientists, the changes in their number can be an early strong indicator of a looming danger.

“The number of natural killer T cells in the blood can be used to predict severe cases of Covid-19 with a high degree of certainty—even on a patient's first day in hospital,” says Burkhard Becher, the team’s leading researcher.

The early diagnostics based on the new method could allow the medics to develop an optimal treatment for any patient, including the frequency of oxygen measurements, type of therapy and the need to transfer a patient to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU), the scientists say.
“Predictive biomarkers are very useful for making these decisions. They help clinicians provide patients suffering severe symptoms with the best care possible,” says Stefanie Kreutmair, another co-author of the study. “Our findings also make it possible to investigate new therapies against Covid-19.”

The researchers also found a way to distinguish between an acute pneumonia caused by Covid-19 and other types of pneumonia. The team analyzed blood samples of patients with severe pneumonia driven by pathogens other than the novel coronavirus. They compared various types of immune response to determine the one triggered by the novel coronavirus.

“When it comes to Covid-19, however, T cells and natural killer cells display a unique behavior and describe a kind of pattern in the immune system—the immune signature specific to Covid-19,” Becher said.

The total number of Covid-19 cases in the world has surpassed 155 million. More than 3 million people died from the disease. The US remains the hardest-hit nation with a total of 32 million cases reported. It is followed by India, which recently surpassed Brazil as the second worst-infected country in the world. India has been recently battling record-high infection rates amid an acute medical oxygen crisis.

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