One big question scientists face about the deadly coronavirus is how, or even if, we can develop immunity to the virus.
Immunity after any infection can range from lifelong to nonexistent, say experts. Data on the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is scarce and contradictory, so currently experts have no clue on whether we can become immune to the virus.
Studies on SARS and MERS suggest that people can harbor antibodies for some time — for up to three years. Those same studies reveal that during that period, the virus steadily loses its power to replicate.
Marc Lipsitch, a professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says in an opinion piece for The New York Times that the good news is that research on SARS and MERS may be beneficial in providing information about the current coronavirus. If you get it, or if we develop a vaccine, will this give you immunity or exacerbate the infection as in the case of other viruses?
Lipsitch says this is called “immune enhancement” and occurs with another group of viruses called the flaviviruses. “Administering a vaccine against dengue fever, a flavivirus infection, can sometimes make the disease worse,” he says.
“For now, it’s reasonable to assume that only a minority of cases of the world’s population is immune to SARS-CoV-2, even in hard-hit areas,” he says. In fact, in South Korea, patients who tested negative for the virus after being infected and treated, later tested positive again, according to the Times.
CNBC reports that World Health Organization (WHO) officials said Monday that not all people who recover from the coronavirus have antibodies to fight a second infection, reinforcing concern that patients may not develop immunity after surviving COVID-19.
“With regards to recovery and then reinfection, I believe we do not have the answers to that. This is an unknown,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s emergencies program said in a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva.
More than 300,000 of the 1.87 million coronavirus cases across the world have recovered, WHO officials noted, adding they need more data from recovered patients to understand their antibody response, whether that gives them immunity and for how long, according to CNBC.
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