Since COVID-19 coronavirus began infecting the world, people have been waiting for a vaccine or other preventative treatment. Despite breathless reporting from the media, neither is coming soon. However, it turns out you might not need either. You may well already be resistant to SARS-CoV-2.
It’s been repeated by media and public health officials that those who are exposed to the Chinese coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and survive may have antibodies to the virus. Those anti-bodies, we have been told, may be the key to finding treatments or preventive measures for COVID-19.
But what if this isn’t true? Have we lost a measure of hope? This must be bad news, right?
It seems as if it isn’t true. It also, however, seems like this is good news, not bad.
A study done at University Hospital in Zurich has found that SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies only appear in those who suffered the most severe symptoms. That’s about 1 out of every 5 people who were infected and survived. The study has not been peer-reviewed yet due to the overwhelming quantity of studies being posted and published on the Chinese coronavirus.
Their study included 56 patients with a median age of 61. Of that group, 37 had severe symptoms and 19 had mild symptoms. The team also looked at a group of 109 heath care workers who had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. Of that group, 17 were asymptomatic and tested negative, 71 were symptomatic but tested negative and 21 were symptomatic and COVID-19-positive.
They expected to find antibodies in both mild and severe symptomatic patients. They didn’t. That may be due to the inaccuracy of tests or the over-presumption of a COVID-19 diagnosis based on similar symptoms of another pathogen, such as the common cold. The researchers believe that the missing antibodies are explained, at least in part, by a reality in which the mild patients never had COVID-19 in the first place.
A more likely scenario is one in which significantly more people have been exposed to COVID-19 and had mild symptoms or no symptoms. These people haven’t produced antibodies. As a result, an assumption is made that they weren’t exposed or infected.
This is supported by the finding that 80% of those infected produce no antibodies. Since antibody testing has been the only way used so far to assess whether a person has had COVID-19, this throws our current assumptions out the window.
It would also mean a significantly lower Case Fatality Rate (CFR) than has been estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others. Early in the pandemic, the WHO estimated a CFR of 3.4 percent, significantly higher than the worst seasonal flu.
Serological studies from around the world have been casting doubts on that figure for more than a month. Those tests have been looking for antibodies, too. When we factor in the results of those tests, the worldwide CFR drops precipitously, falling to anywhere between 0.004 percent and 0.6 percent. That range is about what we’d expect from the seasonal flu.
As a result of these new studies and their surprising results, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently lowered it’s estimated CFR to a range of 0.26 percent and 0.4 percent. That’s roughly a tenth of the original WHO estimate.
Still not convinced that you might already be resistant to the Chinese coronavirus? Here’s more reason to be happy.
A study published in the journal CELL last month looked at the production of a specific immune cell called a T cell in both COVID-19 patients and those who were unexposed. To be sure that their unexposed group was just that, all the data came from participants who gave blood samples between 2015 and 2018.
Surprisingly, many of the unexposed people had T cells in their bodies that were nearly identical to those that respond to a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Here’s what the researchers said about their findings:
“Importantly, we detected SARS-CoV-2-reactive CD4+ T cells in ∼40%–60% of unexposed individuals, suggesting cross-reactive T cell recognition between circulating “common cold” coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2.”
Here’s more from the paper:
“Cross-reactive immunity to influenza strains has been modeled to be a critical influencer of susceptibility to newly emerging, potentially pandemic influenza strains (Gostic et al., 2016). Given the severity of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it has been modeled that any degree of cross-protective coronavirus immunity in the population could have a very substantial impact on the overall course of the pandemic, and the dynamics of the epidemiology for years to come.”
The Chinese coronavirus is a new version of something we’re already familiar with. There are at least four other coronaviruses that cause what we generally call the “common cold.” Three others, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS,) Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and SARS-CoV-2 can potentially cause more severe symptoms in humans.
It makes sense, then, that the human body would be predisposed, at least to some degree, to battle coronaviruses, at least in a general sense. It also makes sense that, with the exception of a relatively small percentage of the human population, this virus isn’t the horrible pathogen we thought it was.
Did we overreact to something we could handle? Maybe, maybe not. For the elderly, those with immune system issues and some with comorbidities like diabetes and cancer, extreme precautions were prudent. But it’s becoming clearer that the level of panic that created our response to the virus is something we can’t afford to allow when the next pathogen rears it’s ugly head.
For now, the good news is many of us will be able to fight off this virus, should we come in contact with it. Let’s be happy about that. Because in the end, that means that more of us can return to some semblance of normal life.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
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