Triad researchers say key to defeating COVID-19 is group immunity, not antibodies


FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — As researchers work to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, there has been a lot of conversation surrounding antibodies and their potential for reducing someone’s risk of getting the virus again. But doctors treating the patients who are battling COVID-19 say antibodies aren’t the answer when it comes to getting out of this pandemic.

“Antibodies are proteins that your immune system makes to help you fight off infection,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. David Priest, senior vice president, chief safety and quality officer for Novant Health. “We think early after somebody’s infected, they have antibodies probably at least for about 12 weeks.”

Priest says there are a lot of questions about those antibodies.

“We don’t know how protective they are. We don’t know if we’re measuring the right antibodies,” he said.

That said, there have been some encouraging signs regarding other parts of the immune system and how they fight the virus.

“Mainly some cells called T-cells, probably play an important role in protecting people,” Priest said.

While antibodies may help people fight off infection, experts say the real answer to defeating COVID-19 is immunity.

“We need peoples’ immune systems to recognize this virus and fight it off,” Priest said. “Probably 60 to 70 percent of people need some degree of immunity in order for the pandemic to subside.”

While 60-70 percent may sound like a large number, we have managed to overcome other diseases which require greater amounts.

“In something like the measles, you need to have more than 90 percent of the population vaccinated to get that kind of group immunity,” Priest said.

The key to that kind of group immunity, as Priest alludes to, is a vaccine. At last check, there were 135 vaccines in pre-clinical trials, and several them have made it through several phases.

“We’re excited about that, but we certainly want to make sure those vaccines are safe before we recommend people get them,” Priest said.

In the meantime, Novant Health has had seven different clinical trials with a variety of treatments, including giving very ill patients convalescent plasma. Convalescent plasma is donated plasma, donated by a COVID-19 survivor, which contains antibodies.

“We’re waiting on the results of some of those studies to give us more guidance on the best mode of treatment,” Priest said.

In short, experts don’t know if people are safe if they’ve already had the virus.

“Don’t get cocky just yet because we don’t know how protective those things are,” said Priest, referring to antibodies.

Another concern is the possibility of the virus continuing to mutate.

“Sometimes those mutations make a virus not as dangerous and sometimes they make a virus more dangerous,” Priest said.

While he says they have seen some mutations, he admits the virus hasn’t changed much.

“We think those mutations may not have made it more deadly or made people more sick, but those mutations may have made it more easy to transmit,” Priest said.

Experts are also finding that areas that were considered hotspots at the beginning of the pandemic are in fact seeing greater group immunity.

“The amount of immunity in a place like New York City is higher than other parts of the country where the virus has not been as active yet,” Priest said.

Priest adds that researchers aren’t seeing any evidence that we’re close to the 60 to 70 percent group immunity level. This, as they’re already looking ahead to the influenza season.

“It is possible to get both at once,” said Priest, of influenza and COVID-19.

Although the hospitals are anticipating what could be a rough winter if influenza and coronavirus are both circulating, they’re hopeful that things we’re doing now – social distancing, wearing a mask and washing hands – could result in people protecting themselves from both viruses at the same time.

“We really don’t know how COVID and influenza are going to react to each other,” Priest said.

As fall approaches, doctors are encouraging people to get the flu vaccine, continue diligent hand washing and focus on their own personal risk factors.

“We are pulling out all the stops on every possible new treatment,” Priest said. “We’re waiting for those vaccines to come so that patients get everything they can possibly get to get better.”

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