Antibody immunity to coronavirus may be short-lived: UK study

Henrietta Strickland
July 13, 2020

Covid-19 could be here to stay and reinfect people every year like the common cold, according to new research suggesting immunity to the virus may only last a matter of months.

King's College London scientists looked at the immune response of more than 90 patients and healthcare workers at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS foundation trust. Although 60% of participants produced a "potent" antibody response while they had covid-19, only 17% had the same level of potency at the end of the three-month testing period.

Antibodies decreased 23-fold in some cases, and were depleted entirely in others. In some cases, they became undetectable, the research revealed.

But if a virus is more infectious, a higher percentage of people would need to have immunity to stop the spread and achieve herd immunity, Orenstein said. Antibody levels were higher and longer-lasting in people who had had more severe cases of covid-19.

It could have implications for vaccines, as Dr Doores said people's immunity "may need boosting and one shot might not be sufficient".

Some 150 vaccines now are in development worldwide with four already in human trials.

The results suggest once a vaccine is found, regular boosters may be required to protect against the virus in future.

Speaking on Sky News, Prof Robin Shattock of Imperial College London said a competing vaccine developed by his group could be available in the first half of next year if clinical trials go well.

An effective vaccine is likely to be months away from community use.

The scientists found that antibody levels peaked three weeks after symptoms and then declined. This work confirms that protective antibody responses in those infected with SARS-COV2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, appear to wane rapidly.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, likens the inability to establish immunity to the way the human body is unable to establish immunity to the common cold.

But how long immunity lasts varies depending on the virus, and it's not yet known how long Covid-19 survivors might have that protection. "One thing we know about these coronaviruses is that people can get reinfected fairly often", said Prof Stuart Neil, a co-author on the study.

As Professor Jonathan Heeney, a virologist at the University of Cambridge put it, these fresh findings, one of a kind in the field, "put another nail in the coffin of the unsafe concept of herd immunity".

"I can not underscore how important it is that the public understands that getting infected by this virus is not a good thing".

Tests on patients treated at Munich's Schwabing Clinic showed a significant drop in the number of so-called neutralizing antibodies in the blood, said Clemens Wendtner, senior consultant at the hospital's department for infectious diseases.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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