Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 immune response several months post-infection hints at protective immunity

SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 virus
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Image captured and colorized at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana. Credit: NIAID

Researchers who studied antibody and immune cell responses in more than 180 men and women who had recovered from COVID-19 report these patients’ immune memory to the virus – across all immune cell types studied – was measurable for up to 8 months after symptoms appeared. The results indicate “that durable immunity against secondary COVID-19 disease is a possibility in most individuals,” the authors say.

As the number of daily COVID-19 cases worldwide continues to mount, whether an initial infection with SARS-CoV-2 leads to long-lasting protective immunity against COVID-19 remains a question. Studying the nature of the humoral response to the virus, which includes an antibody response, and of the cellular immune response, which includes B cells and T cells, over periods of six months after symptoms start could help inform protective immunity’s duration. To do this, Jennifer Dan and colleagues recruited more than 180 men and women from the United States who had recovered from the disease. The majority had had mild symptoms that did not require hospitalization, though 7% were hospitalized. Most subjects provided a blood sample at a single time point, between six days and eight months after symptoms took hold, though 43 samples were provided at 6 months or more following symptom onset.

In 254 total samples from 188 COVID-19 cases, Dan and colleagues tracked antibodies, B cells (which produce more antibodies), and two types of T cells (which kill cells that are infected). Antibodies, including to viral spike protein components, only exhibited modest declines at six to eight months after symptom onset. T cells, meanwhile, showed only a slight decay in the body, while B cells that recognized features of the SARS-CoV-2 virus grew in number in some cases, the authors say.

While the authors caution that “direct conclusions about protective immunity cannot be made on the basis of [their findings] because mechanisms of protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 are not defined in humans,” they also say that several “reasonable interpretations” can be made from their study. These include support for resting immune memory compartments potentially contributing “in meaningful ways to protective immunity against pneumonia or severe secondary COVID-19,” the authors write.

The study is published in Science.


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Materials provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Content may be edited for clarity, style, and length.


 

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