Covid Immunity – A Long Sciencey Post

Immunity! It was interesting to see this topic suddenly going viral around the news and networks recently – I was always rather confused why this whole subject was so little talked about, especially given that it is this very immunity that the vaccine is targeting. We’ve known for quite a while that immunity to Covid was continuing fairly normally. Of course, it was and is impossible to make assumptions about the future, both scientifically and in terms of precautions – the science is new and fuzzy and confusing – but even so, there were times when I was wondering whether it was deliberate, basic details of how the immune system works barely taken into account and the news deliberately slanted to keep us terrified. We were bombarded with reports about antibodies fading away, that people were being reinfected, that we could all be vulnerable pretty much forever, that we were all doomed …! I am a science fanboy, but I knew little about the intricacy of the immune system. I’d have expected to be told these things, though! Instead, I had to dig into the scientific literature and higher-end science reporting to find out much. The following is a hint of what we currently know, AS FAR AS I, A NON-EXPERT, HAVE BEEN ABLE TO WORK OUT in a tangle of new science, incomplete data, educated speculation, spin and chaos. Check for yourself rather than take my word for it, of course, and stand by for further developments.

The picture now seems to be that the immune memory is actually pretty good for most of us, even in the case of mild infections. As time has passed, there has been a steady parade of studies that basically reveal “yes, still immune now”, with the latest I looked at being just a few days ago (published in Science). The immune response is coordinated by B-cells and T-cells in a very complex choreography, with antibodies as just one part of that. It seems that in some people, antibodies may last longer, and in others the antibodies fade (a normal occurrence) but immunity persists from other mechanisms such as the T-cells. But at heart, immunity is still continuing for the vast majority. The reinfections reported are aligning with the fact that some reinfections are normal for any disease, probably for any number of reasons, including compromised immune systems. Even the classically one-off ones like chicken pox can reinfect to a certain degree (4-13% of so of cases). So far, none of this suggests a reason to panic or to see us as helpless in the face of the Covid virus. Whether immunity will eventually tail off and in the future some of us will need annual Covid jabs like the flu, or whether it will last a much longer time like SARS remains to be seen but for the moment, if you had a case of Covid at some point, it seems significantly more likely than not that you are still immune right now. And THANK YOU mainstream media for finally acknowledging this!

From an MIT article: “The researchers found that antibodies in the body declined moderately after eight months, although levels varied wildly between individuals. But T-cell numbers declined only modestly, and B-cell numbers held steady and sometimes inexplicably grew. That means that despite decreases in free-flowing antibodies, the components that can restart antibody production and coordinate an attack against the coronavirus stick around at pretty high levels. Crotty adds that the same mechanisms that lead to immune memory after infection also form the basis for immunity after vaccination, so the same trends ought to hold for vaccinated people as well.”https://www.technologyreview.com/…/covid-19-immunity…/

Some are speculating that the immunity provided by an infection may be stronger than that caused by the vaccine – at least the current generation based around the ‘fake’ protein spike. This might make sense, if proven, since in an actual infection the immune memory will presumably have much more to work with and ‘save’ in its database. This is not to say that the vaccine is ineffective, by any means – it will strengthen people a lot. But in general, according to the WHO, those who are confirmed or certain that they had Covid need not rush to be vaccinated – it is possibly worth stepping to the back of the line to make more available for others. That’s a tricky one to call, of course, because how sure are you? And also, this is where the somewhat skewed reporting about and lack of focus on immunity starts to bite because there has been so little acknowledgement of immunity in our lives so far, and none at all in any regulations, that I’m not sure many people will even think of that. The good news is that taking a vaccine on top of existing immunity should have no ill effects and will likely boost your immunity a little further. The bad news is that this has made the roll-out of the vaccine that much less efficient.

There are some secondary questions here that are also important. One would be “If one is immune, can one still spread the virus?” This is actually one of the less known areas and looking into it drops you into a dizzying tangle of maybes and not quite sures and we’re working on its. But as this is pretty vital for getting a normal life back again, it’s of huge importance. At heart, it’s a bad question though, because the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’, as the news and soundbites keep repeating. It seems that if one fights off a new infection of Covid following immunity, one may briefly be infectious during a period of virus shedding – less so, of course, but the crucial thing is how much less? The likelihood is that it will be drastically less than a full symptomatic Covid case, given the lack of symptom-based spreading mechanisms and the low viral loads, and possibly even reduced to near-zero. The WHO stated at one point that such transmission is very rare, and indeed this seems a common assumption among the scientists – but for the moment an assumption is what it remains, as far as I can tell. This is one thing that will need more work to prove and should come clearer as the vaccine is rolled out wider and time passes. It seems fairly safe though to say that Covid immunity is very good news for others as well as yourself. The fact that the vaccine is being given urgently to careworkers working with the very vulnerable, as well as the very vulnerable themselves, suggests that policy is being driven by this, at least up to a point.

The last question is maybe the biggest of all right now – “does this immunity apply to new variants?” The answer appears to be ‘probably’ – and a scientific ‘probably’ is very valuable – though it is important to remember how new this is, meaning that info is limited and to a degree speculative. Conversely though, it’s important to remember that the virus has varied almost endlessly since it appeared, with over 12,000 variants known, so even though what we have now is a fast spreading variant, it is by no means a unique event. The details of how mutations and immunity work are also positive here. According to Imperial College London: “With the emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, many are asking what implications this poses for immunity either after natural infection or vaccination. The results of the current study reinforce the idea that most people, even following mild infection, carry antibody and T cell immunity to many parts of the virus (epitopes). While the new variant makes 17 changes to the virus’ coding sequence, most aren’t necessarily within epitopes. Therefore, the immune system will likely still be able to recognise and respond to the virus.” https://www.imperial.ac.uk/…/covid-19-immunity-lasts…/

Needless to say, none of the above detracts from the reality of what is happening or is an excuse for being dismissive or reckless (my disclaimer since a disclaimer always seems to be needed!). Science is fuzzy – a slow grind of data that can say many things, yet eventually focuses down into a more defined consensus. And for that, nothing substitutes time and work – we’ve had a vast amount of the latter but not much of the former. However, this is a sad portrayal of the way the news and viral media works, with the most sensational pushed and shared while quiet scientific detail and nuance gets ignored. Maybe the government as well, since it is well known that they have used scare tactics, as advised by SAGE. The worst is reported with great gusto for clicks and OMGs, the good news notably quieter. Exactly when this immunity knowledge will filter through to the increasingly finicky and ever-changing regulations is another question. And as people and society buckle under fear, either breaking down or lashing out at each other, it would be so nice to see some more nuanced reporting.

But it’s more than that. The government and the media stand accused with very good reason of scaremongering but to my mind, the more they do that, the more they whip up terror and emotional distress, the more they themselves are discrediting the issue itself. It is no surprise at all that more and more people will take a look at the overall tone of the info that they are being fed and switch off the whole thing, no longer taking any part of this seriously. They are utilising a polarising tactic that pushes every one of us either towards terror or denial.

Published in: on January 18, 2021 at 2:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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