With the exponential growth of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in recent months, there is a question on many experts’ minds: can you develop immunity from the virus?
With many infectious diseases, herd immunity can come into play and help stop the spread. Herd immunity happens in two ways:
- Many people from an infected area contract the disease and become immune naturally.
- The majority of people are administered a vaccine that achieves the same immunity result.
Although immunity has become something of a staple when it comes to recovering from and/or avoiding serious health repercussions of an infectious disease, not much is known about whether or not the same tactic will work in the case of COVID-19. Given the rapid spread of the virus, the seriousness of cases, and the unknown numbers of those infected without showing symptoms, it’s hard to pinpoint what level of immunity is possible.
Can you develop immunity to SARS-CoV-2?
At the time of writing, roughly 4.76 million people have contracted the virus, with just under 2 million of those confirmed cases recovered. This means that although the virus has been extremely deadly, with around 316,000 deaths globally, around 37% of the people who have been infected have recovered. This poses the question of whether or not those who have recovered have developed a natural immunity to the virus.
The immune system is capable of destroying and eliminating countless pathogens that the body comes into contact with, and generally it can ‘remember’ what threat has been there before, thus making it even better equipped to fight off the same thing if it rolls around again. So far in the case of COVID-19, it is not known for sure whether those infected with the virus will gain immunity.
The efficacy of a vaccine
A vaccine for any kind of disease works in a very specific way. For the immune system to build up a defence system against a certain pathogen, it first needs to come into contact with said pathogen. The vaccine is designed with molecules of a certain disease, called antigens, and introduced into the body.
When this occurs, an immune response is triggered and antibodies are formed in the wake of the threat. This is done to help the body establish its own defence system for a specific type of antigen so that if the virus does happen to show up in the body again, the team of fighting cells will be ready to take it down before it spreads and causes serious illness.
A COVID-19 vaccine would ideally cause the body to become ‘immune’ to the virus, or at the very least, lead it to the battle with the right tools in hand. It’s not an easy feat, though. Since not much is known about the virus at this time, and new information is coming to light every day, it’s challenging to create a vaccine for a virus that isn’t yet fully understood.
What’s the difference between long- and short-term immunity?
There are different types of immunity: short- and long-term immunity. In the case of long-term immunity, the body needs to be able to remember a specific pathogen to develop an ongoing immunity to it. Certain cells that are triggered when an immune response is needed become memory cells, and their specific job is to know how to identify antigens that they’ve seen before in an effort to stomp them out faster.
Short-term immunity occurs when certain antibodies are passed from one person to another – for example, from a mother to her child. It can also be achieved when a person receives the antibodies through a vaccine or other serum that contains the antibodies in question. Both are required to develop immunity, but are done in very different ways.
What is an immunity passport?
An immunity passport is a health document that some professionals have deemed necessary, or at least a good idea, for those who have become infected with the virus but are no longer able to spread it. People with an immunity passport will be able to travel without restrictions because although they’ve had the virus, they no longer carry any threat.
The immunity passport concept is currently under scrutiny, because more information would be needed to decide whether or not those with SARS-CoV-2 antibodies are immune and unable to pass it on to others.
The danger of mixed reports
In today’s 24-hours news cycle, any and all information about the virus can be considered true or false, depending on the source. There are many reports circling that contradict what other professionals are saying, and this can be damaging to the study of the virus.
For example, many experts believe that there is no reason to think that SARS-CoV-2 will cause a unique reaction when it comes to immunity. However, the WHO stated in a tweet that there is no evidence to support that theory. Despite these two pieces of information seeming contradictory, both are correct, so it’s important to understand that more research needs to be done to ensure definitive answers when it comes to the concept of immunity to COVID-19.