Do those who recover from COVID-19 become immune?

  • It’s unclear because the virus is still so new to the world
  • There is no evidence to suggest that you gain immunity after an infection
  • Previous research on other coronaviruses don’t yield optimistic results

One of the big question marks involved in just how and when society can gradually get back to normal involves building immunity to COVID-19. Pending any treatments or vaccine to the virus, antibody blood tests—which show who has or hasn’t been exposed—may be key in determining when it might finally be safe to relax social-distancing guidelines.

Now, some governments around the globe are currently weighing whether the detection of antibodies could serve as the basis for an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate” that would enable “immune” individuals to return to work or travel, assuming that they cannot become reinfected.

But there is currently no concrete evidence to prove that those who have recovered from COVID-19 have the antibodies to protect them from a second infection. Meanwhile, scientists and health organizations around the globe are racing to find answers.

How do antibodies work?

Typically, when germs enter your body, your immune system springs into action to ward off infection. Bacteria and viruses—such as the one that causes COVID-19—have proteins called “antigens” on their surfaces, and each type of germ has its own unique antigen. Your body’s white blood cells respond by making proteins called “antibodies” to fight these antigens. 

As Web MD explains, antibodies attach to antigens in a way similar to how a key fits into a lock, thereby destroying the invading germ. After having been exposed to a virus, your body then makes so-called memory cells, which alert the immune system to make more antibodies in the event you become exposed to that same virus again.

Vaccines essentially work in the same way by exposing your body to weakened or killed versions of viruses that, in turn, train your immune system to fight off that specific germ. Through natural infection, the development of immunity is a multi-step process that typically takes one to two weeks.

Will theoretical immunity to COVID-19 last?

With not enough empirical evidence collected about COVID-19, in particular, experts at Columbia University are comparing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to research previously conducted on four (albeit weaker) strains of coronaviruses in the same broad family to learn how this pandemic might unfold. Unfortunately, a preliminary report found that people frequently got reinfected with the same coronavirus—even in the same year, and sometimes more than once. 

In the study, which took place over the course of a year-and-a-half—beginning in the fall of 2016 and continuing into 2018—a dozen of the 191 volunteers tested positive two or three times for the same virus. One case even saw a scant four weeks between positive results.

Again, we still don’t know if COVID-19 will follow the same pattern. However, the Columbia study suggests that much of the public discourse about the pandemic could be misleading—particularly when it comes to getting “past the peak,” immunity passports, and so on.

While that sounds pretty bleak on paper, there is still hope that infection is more widespread than generally known (particularly in many countries like the United States, where widespread testing is not yet available) and that eventually, immunity will reach enough of the population to stop the virus from spreading.

Sources: WHO, WebMD, MIT, Columbia

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