Recent research raises questions about whether people who contract COVID-19 develop antibody immunity, leading doctors and patients worried about whether it’s possible to be reinfected.
For many diseases, the body springs into action making antibodies that remember the pathogen and fight it off in the future. Such is the case with measles. Most people living in the U.S. before 1957 are immune to the disease because they had it. But it remains to be seen whether the novel coronavirus creates the same lasting effect.
“Most everyone I know in the scientific community has been raising that question since the beginning,” Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told NBC News. “The nightmare of this is based on how much we don’t know.
Saag said that recent evidence suggests COVID-19 antibodies have been shown to wane from 60 to 90 days after infection.
Researchers at King’s College London analyzed the blood of infected patients and healthcare workers and found that the levels of protective antibodies peaked about three weeks after the first symptoms appeared. However, those antibodies were found in only 17% of the patients three months later, according to The Daily Caller.
“People are producing a reasonable antibody response to the virus, but it’s waning over a short period of time and depending on how high your peak is, that determines how long the antibodies are staying around,” said Dr. Katie Doores, one of the study’s lead authors.
The new research suggests people can get repeatedly infected with the virus, much like they do with the common cold.
Derek Cummings, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, said the research is consistent with other forms of coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. He told NBC News that because coronavirus infections often occur without symptoms, people who contract COVID-19 should be carefully followed to “detect that second infection.”
The probability that people can become reinfected within a period of weeks or months increases the challenge of getting the pandemic under control, say experts, and completely dashes the notion of herd immunity.
“Just throw it out the window,” Saag told NBC News. “Because not enough people could sustain an immune response that would protect against infection long enough for the virus to extinguish.”
The research also throws a wrench into the hope that a vaccine will be the ultimate cure and panacea for the disease.
“Infection tends to give you the best-case scenario for an antibody response, so if your infection is giving you antibody levels that wane in two to three months, the vaccine will do potentially the same thing,” Doores told The Guardian. “People may need boosting and one shot may not be enough.”
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