Among the many uncertainties that remain about Covid-19 is how the human immune system responds to infection and what that means for the spread of the disease. Immunity after any infection can range from lifelong and complete to nearly nonexistent. So far, however, only the first glimmers of data are available about immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
What can scientists, and the decision makers who rely on science to inform policies, do in such a situation? The best approach is to construct a conceptual model – a set of assumptions about how immunity might work – based on current knowledge of the immune system and information about related viruses, and then identify how each aspect of that model might be wrong, how one would know and what the implications would be. Next, scientists should set out to work to improve this understanding with observation and experiment.
The ideal scenario – once infected, a person is completely immune for life – is correct for a number of infections. The Danish physician Peter Panum famously figured this out for measles when he visited the Faroe Islands (between Scotland and Iceland) during an outbreak in 1846 and found that residents over 65 who had been alive during a previous outbreak in 1781 were protected. This striking observation helped launch the fields of immunology and epidemiology – and ever since, as in many other disciplines, the scientific community has learned that often things are more complicated.
One example of “more complicated” is immunity to coronaviruses, a large group of viruses that sometimes jump from animal hosts to humans: SARS-CoV-2 is the third major coronavirus epidemic to affect humans in recent times, after the SARS outbreak of 2002-3 and the MERS outbreak that started in 2012.
Much of our understanding of coronavirus immunity comes not from SARS or MERS, which have infected comparatively small numbers of people, but from the coronaviruses that spread every year causing respiratory infections ranging from a common cold to pneumonia. In two separate studies, researchers infected human volunteers with a seasonal coronavirus and about a year later inoculated them with the same or a similar virus to observe whether they had acquired immunity.
In the first study, researchers selected 18 volunteers who developed colds after they were inoculated — or “challenged,” as the term goes — with one strain of coronavirus in 1977 or 1978. Six of the subjects were re-challenged a year later with the same strain, and none was infected, presumably thanks to protection acquired with their immune response to the first infection. The other 12 volunteers were exposed to a slightly different strain of coronavirus a year later, and their protection to that was only partial.
In another study published in 1990, 15 volunteers were inoculated with a coronavirus; 10 were infected. Fourteen returned for another inoculation with the same strain a year later: They displayed less severe symptoms and their bodies produced less of the virus than after the initial challenge, especially those who had shown a strong immune response the first time around.
No such human-challenge experiments have been conducted to study immunity to SARS and MERS. But measurements of antibodies in the blood of people who have survived those infections suggest that these defenses persist for some time: two years for SARS, according to one study, and almost three years for MERS, according to another one. However, the neutralizing ability of these antibodies – a measure of how well they inhibit virus replication – was already declining during the study periods.
These studies form the basis for an educated guess at what might happen with Covid-19 patients. After being infected with SARS-CoV-2, most individuals will have an immune response, some better than others. That response, it may be assumed, will offer some protection over the medium term – at least a year – and then its effectiveness might decline.