What if immunity to covid-19 doesn’t last?

Starting in the fall of 2016 and continuing into 2018, researchers at Columbia University in Manhattan began collecting nasal swabs from 191 children, teachers, and emergency workers, asking them to record when they sneezed or had sore throats. The point was to create a map of common respiratory viruses and their symptoms, and how long people who recovered stayed immune to each one.

The research included four coronaviruses, HKU1, NL63, OC42, and C229E, which circulate widely every year but don’t get much attention because they only cause common colds. But now that a new coronavirus in the same broad family, SARS-CoV-2, has the world on lockdown, information about the mild viruses is among our clues to how the pandemic might unfold.

What the Columbia researchers now describe in a preliminary report is cause for concern. They found that people frequently got reinfected with the same coronavirus, even in the same year, and sometimes more than once. Over a year and a half, a dozen of the volunteers tested positive two or three times for the same virus, in one case with just four weeks between positive results.

That’s a stark difference from the pattern with infections like measles or chicken pox, where people who recover can expect to be immune for life.

For the coronaviruses “immunity seems to wane quickly,” says Jeffrey Shaman, who carried out the research with Marta Galanti, a postdoctoral researcher.

Jeffrey Shaman, Columbia UniversityJeffrey Shaman leads the Virome of Manhattan study at Columbia University, which found people are frequently re-infected by the same cold-causing germs. The research shows immunity to some coronaviruses is short lived.


Whether covid-19 will follow the same pattern is unknown, but the Columbia results suggest one way that much of the public discussion about the pandemic could be misleading. There is talk of getting “past the peak” and “immunity passports” for those who’ve recovered. At the same time, some hope the infection is more widespread than generally known, and that only a tolerable death total stands between us and high enough levels of population immunity for the virus to stop spreading.

All that presumes immunity is long-lived, but what if it is fleeting instead?

“What I have been telling everyone—and no one believes me, but it’s true—is we get coronaviruses every winter even though we’re seroconverted,” says Matthew Frieman, who studies the virus family at the University of Maryland. That is, even though most people have previously developed antibodies to them, they get the viruses again. “We really don’t understand whether it is a change in the virus over time or antibodies that don’t protect from infection,” he says.

Critical factor

We’re currently in the pandemic phase. That’s when a new virus, which humans are entirely susceptible to, rockets around the planet. And humanity is still a greenfield for covid-19—as of April 26, there were about three million confirmed cases, or one in 2,500 people on the planet. (Even though the true number of infections is undoubtedly higher, it’s still probably only a small fraction of the population.) Takeshi Kasai, the World Health Organization’s regional director for the Western Pacific, recently warned that until a vaccine is available, the world should get ready for a “new way of living.”

Further out, though, changes like social distancing or grounding airline flights may not be the biggest factor in our fate. Whether or not people acquire immunity to the virus,

 » Continua a leggere su TechnologyReview…