To the immune system, not all germs are equally memorable. But our body’s cells seem to be seriously studying up on the coronavirus.
Scientists See Signs of Lasting Immunity to Covid-19, Even After Mild Infections
Scientists who have been monitoring immune responses to the virus are now starting to see encouraging signs of strong, lasting immunity, even in people who developed only mild symptoms of Covid-19, a flurry of new studies suggests. Disease-fighting antibodies, as well as immune cells called B cells and T cells that are capable of recognizing the virus, appear to persist months after infections have resolved — an encouraging echo of the body’s enduring response to other viruses.
“Things are really working as they’re supposed to,” said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona and an author on one of the new studies, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Although researchers cannot forecast how long these immune responses will last, many experts consider the data a welcome indication that the body’s most studious cells are doing their job — and will have a good chance of fending off the coronavirus, faster and more fervently than before, if exposed to it again.
“This is exactly what you would hope for,” said Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington and an author on another of the new studies, which is currently under review at the journal Nature. “All the pieces are there to have a totally protective immune response.”
Protection against reinfection cannot be fully confirmed until there is proof that most people who encounter the virus a second time are actually able to keep it at bay, Dr. Pepper said. But the findings could help quell recent concerns over the virus’s ability to dupe the immune system into amnesia, leaving people vulnerable to repeat bouts of disease.
In discussions about immune responses to the coronavirus, much of the conversation has focused on antibodies — Y-shaped proteins that can latch onto the surfaces of pathogens and block them from infecting cells. But antibodies represent just one wing of a complex and coordinated squadron of immune soldiers, each with their own unique modes of attack. Viruses that have already invaded cells, for instance, are cloaked from antibodies, but are still vulnerable to killer T cells, which force infected cells to self-destruct. Another set of T cells, nicknamed “helpers,” can coax B cells to mature into antibody-making machines.
(Yet another sector of the immune system assails pathogens within minutes of their arrival, while sending out signals called cytokines to mobilize forces from elsewhere in the body. Some evidence suggests that severe cases of Covid-19 may stem from this early process going awry.)