It has long been hoped that the solution to the coronavirus pandemic would come from within our own bodies. The miraculous entity that is our immune system has long been humanity’s secret weapon against threats of illness and disease and for many, it has already displayed it’s spectacular capabilities in the fight against COVID-19.
The vast proportion of people infected by the virus have recovered after suffering only minor symptoms, and some have been completely asymptomatic. It is still not known why some people are affected more severely by the virus than others, but it was widely assumed that ‘some’ level of immunity would result after the body had fought off the virus. How long and how effective that immunity would be has been one of the biggest questions faced by the scientific and medical community as we continue to fight to bring this global pandemic under control.
A new study into coronavirus immunity of over 365,000 adults by Imperial College London has revealed that the population’s protective antibodies appear to be declining compared to figures from a few months ago, suggesting that any acquired immunity is temporary. The data was obtained from the Real-Time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT-2) study and is yet to be peer-reviewed, however the results suggest that immunity is falling at an alarming rate and this scenario poses a very real risk of reinfection.
The study showed that in September 2020, the number of estimated adults displaying some form of immunity to the virus was in the region of 4.4 per cent. In comparison around 6% tested positive for antibodies when tested in June and when tested just a few weeks later, the rates had already fallen to 4.8 per cent. This figure was for the testing period July 31st and August 31st and clearly shows a declining scale of immunity between the June and September testing. In fact, antibody levels were reported to have fallen by 26.5 per cent during the three-month testing period. Interestingly, the findings also revealed that antibody levels had not changed in healthcare workers over the same period, which some experts have suggested is a result of continued exposure to the virus.
The study also revealed interesting trends in patterns of diminishing immunity by age; the lowest decline in antibody levels were seen in the 18-27 age group where it fell at a rate of 14.9 per cent. In people aged 75 and over, antibody levels fell at a rate of 39 per cent. These findings present a worrying hypothesis that the cycles of reinfection could be just weeks apart with the older population continuing to remain the most vulnerable. It also supports the growing acceptance that any kind of ‘herd immunity’ is simply unattainable at present, as the figures suggest that over 95% of the UK population do not possess protective antibodies.
There is no denying that these results are useful in understanding how the population is responding to the virus, but there are still many unanswered questions. The experts behind the study have been quick to point out that we simply don’t know what level of protection the antibodies provide and for how long. It was also highlighted that during the first wave of the virus in the UK the vast majority of people tested did not have protective immunity, meaning they had not yet been exposed to the virus. This means that the only way to gain significant levels of protection across the population is through a widespread vaccine.
The prospect of having to wait for a vaccine is a concerning one, mainly because we simply don’t know when this will be available. The race to find a suitable vaccine continues and several are in the final stage trials. One of the most well known is the Oxford COVID Vaccine Trial, the results of which are due in early 2021. However, recent reports have suggested that this particular vaccine appears to work across all age groups which is hugely promising. That said, many experts have warned that the first generation of vaccines are not likely to be perfect. It is also expected that initially, vaccines will only be given to the most vulnerable members of society given the expected global demand once a vaccine has been approved for widespread usage.
As we see more countries entering national lockdowns to try and curb the soaring infection rates, we must be mindful that this battle is likely to be a long and winding one. People are naturally frustrated and worried about the impacts on both social and economic welfare in the coming months, but it is important that we all pull together and support each other by following the guidelines. It is only by doing so that we can help to contain cases to manageable levels whilst we continue to wait for a successful vaccine.