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BACKGROUND: Cross-reactivity to SARS-CoV-2 from exposure to endemic human coronaviruses (eHCoV) is gaining increasing attention as a possible driver of both protection against infection and COVID-19 severity. Here we explore the potential role of cross-reactivity induced by eHCoVs on age-specific COVID-19 severity in a mathematical model of eHCoV and SARS-CoV-2 transmission. METHODS: We use an individual-based model, calibrated to prior knowledge of eHCoV dynamics, to fully track individual histories of exposure to eHCoVs. We also model the emergent dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 and the risk of hospitalisation upon infection. RESULTS: We hypothesise that primary exposure with any eHCoV confers temporary cross-protection against severe SARS-CoV-2 infection, while life-long re-exposure to the same eHCoV diminishes cross-protection, and increases the potential for disease severity. We show numerically that our proposed mechanism can explain age patterns of COVID-19 hospitalisation in EU/EEA countries and the UK. We further show that some of the observed variation in health care capacity and testing efforts is compatible with country-specific differences in hospitalisation rates under this model. CONCLUSIONS: This study provides a "proof of possibility" for certain biological and epidemiological mechanisms that could potentially drive COVID-19-related variation across age groups. Our findings call for further research on the role of cross-reactivity to eHCoVs and highlight data interpretation challenges arising from health care capacity and SARS-CoV-2 testing.

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COVID-19, Cross-reactivity, Endemic coronaviruses, Immunopathology, Individual-based model, Infectious disease dynamics, Mathematical model, SARS-CoV-2, Age Factors, COVID-19, Coronavirus, Coronavirus Infections, Cross Protection, Cross Reactions, Endemic Diseases, Hospitalization, Humans, Immunity, Heterologous, Patient-Specific Modeling, SARS-CoV-2, Severity of Illness Index