Protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2 could last eight months or more
MedicalXpress Breaking News-and-Events|January 7, 2021
New data suggest that nearly all COVID-19 survivors have the immune cells necessary to fight re-infection.
The findings, based on analyses of blood samples from 188 COVID-19 patients, suggest that responses to the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, from all major players in the "adaptive" immune system, which learns to fight specific pathogens, can last for at least eight months after the onset of symptoms from the initial infection.
"Our data suggest that the immune response is there—and it stays," LJI Professor Alessandro Sette, Dr. Biol. Sci., who co-led the study with LJI Professor Shane Crotty, PhD, and LJI Research Assistant Professor Daniela Weiskopf, PhD.
"We measured antibodies, memory B cells, helper T cells and killer T cells all at the same time," says Crotty. "As far as we know, this is the largest study ever, for any acute infection, that has measured all four of those components of immune memory."
The findings, published in the January 6, 2021, online edition of Science, could mean that COVID-19 survivors have protective immunity against serious disease from the SARS-CoV-2 virus for months, perhaps years after infection.
The new study helps clarify some concerning COVID-19 data from other labs, which showed a dramatic drop-off of COVID-fighting antibodies in the months following infection. Some feared that this decline in antibodies meant that the body wouldn't be equipped to defend itself against reinfection.
Sette explains that a decline in antibodies is very normal. "Of course, the immune response decreases over time to a certain extent, but that's normal. That's what immune responses do. They have a first phase of ramping up, and after that fantastic expansion, eventually the immune response contracts somewhat and gets to a steady state," Sette says.
The researchers found that virus-specific antibodies do persist in the bloodstream months after infection. Importantly the body also has immune cells called memory B cells at the ready. If a person encounters SARS-CoV-2 again, these memory B cells could reactivate and produce SARS-CoV-2 antibodies to fight re-infection.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus uses its "spike" protein to initiate infection of human cells, so the researchers looked for memory B cells specific for the SARS-CoV-2 spike. They found that spike-specific memory B cells actually increased in the blood six months after infection.
COVID-19 survivors also had an army of T cells ready to fight reinfection. Memory CD4+ "helper" T cells lingered, ready to trigger an immune response if they saw SARS-CoV-2 again. Many memory CB8+ "killer" T cells also remained, ready to destroy infected cells and halt a reinfection.