Scientists see signs of lasting immunity to COVID-19, even after mild infections

Katherine J. Wu, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 17 2020 08:22 AM

A medical worker in protective gear (R) tends to a patient on March 24, 2020 at the new COVID 3 level intensive care unit for coronavirus COVID-19 cases at the Casal Palocco hospital near Rome, during the country's lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alberto Pizzolo, AFP/File 

Scientists who have been monitoring immune responses to the coronavirus 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Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona and an author on one of the new studies, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.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, Pepper said. But the findings could help quell recent concerns over the virus’ ability to dupe the immune system into amnesia, leaving people vulnerable to repeat bouts of disease.

Researchers have yet to find unambiguous evidence that coronavirus reinfections are occurring, especially within the few months that the virus has been rippling through the human population. The prospect of immune memory “helps to explain that,” Pepper said.

Considered with other recent reports, the new data reinforce the idea that, “Yes, you do develop immunity to this virus, and good immunity to this virus,” said Dr. Eun-Hyung Lee, an immunologist at Emory University who was not involved in the studies. “That’s the message we want to get out there.”

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