The general consensus is that around 60% of the population need to develop immunity to COVID-19 to definitively stop its spread. Immunity can be developed either through vaccinations or from the body naturally recovering from an infection. The all-important question is how long this immunity lasts.
Studies have been taken place to understand what occurs in the body after there has been an infection. Evidence suggests that recovering patients do generate antibodies to show that they were infected. The bad news is that this immunity could be short lived.
Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that work as part of the body’s immune response by detecting disease-causing microbes and destroying or blocking them. Antibodies work by sticking to specific proteins. After an infection or vaccine, a number of these antibody producing immune cells remain in the body preventing any infection from developing.
In one study at King’s College London, the levels of virus fighting antibodies reached a peak in about two to three weeks. However, there was a significant drop off after just two to three months. 60% of those tested still produced an antibody response to the virus, but this number dropped to 17% after the three months.
Many other coronaviruses produce the same response in the body, so this isn’t surprising. Antibodies that are produced for the four strains of seasonal coronavirus that cause the common cold are lost within a year. There is the possibility that people developing COVID-19 can get re-infected and that vaccination nor infection will provide lifelong immunity.
Antibodies are not the only weapon that bodies have in the fight against illnesses. T-cells remember past infections, stimulate the B-cells which make antibodies, and also destroy infected cells. T-cells remain in the blood for years after an infection and play a part in the immune system's long term memory.
A study showed that people who recovered from SARS still had T-cells that remembered this infection after 17 years. This raises the possibility that T-cells can help prevent infection even though they may not have any antibodies in their blood.
The problem with T-cells is that they are much smaller in size than antibodies, which makes detecting them a much longer and more painstaking process.
One vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford has been shown to generate the production of both T-cells and antibodies. Hopefully this combination of antibodies and T-cells will provide a more effective immune response to the virus than without the vaccination.
COVID-19 has only been with us for about eight months, and there are still so many unanswered questions. Even if we do make a breakthrough, the logistics of getting everyone around the world vaccinated is another major issue.
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