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WHO says there’s a big problem with coronavirus antibodies and immunity

Published Apr 18th, 2020 11:32AM EDT
Coronavirus Treatment

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  • The World Health Organization (WHO) said that coronavirus immunity testing could prove that someone survived COVID-19, but there’s no proof that a person is immune to the virus.
  • The remarks come in response to increased chatter about immunity tests and immunity passports for the weeks and months ahead.
  • Scientists studying the new SARS-CoV-2 virus haven’t been able to figure out how long immunity lasts, given the disease is just a few months old at this point.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

More than 2.2 million people worldwide have been confirmed as infected with the novel coronavirus as of Saturday morning. COVID-19 needed just three months to kill more than 154,000 patients and upend our daily lives. Social distancing measures have become the norm in most countries, and medical systems have been rushing to ensure they have enough supplies and tests. At the same time, doctors have been experimenting with all sorts of known drugs to alleviate COVID-19 symptoms and prevent life-threatening complications. Separately, researchers came out with an increasing number of studies for the new disease, while others created more than 70 vaccine candidates for SARS-CoV-2.

The general consensus is that COVID-19 immunity is what will help us get past this modern plague, and that can be done by surviving the infection or getting a vaccine. But the WHO has some bad news about COVID-19 immunity. Right now, the mere detection of antibodies doesn’t guarantee protection against the disease.

“These antibody tests will be able to measure that level of serology presence, that level of antibodies, but that does not mean that somebody with antibodies” is immune, WHO’s Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said on Friday. The organization’s head of the emerging diseases and zoonosis unit added that WHO officials discovered many countries that suggested the immunity tests would “capture what they think will be a measure of immunity.”

Indeed, there’s been plenty of talk about immunity lately and about so-called immunity passports that would confirm a person is a COVID-19 survivor. As we’ve explained in the past, the whole thing might work, but it could also fail if strict procedures aren’t in place to ensure the validity of the data. Also, there’s one big question about immunity that’s yet to be answered: we have no idea how long this acquired immunity lasts.

“What the use of these tests will do will measure the level of antibodies. It’s a response that the body has a week or two later after they’ve been infected with this virus,” the doctor said at a news conference in Geneva, per CNBC. “Right now, we have no evidence that the use of a serological test can show that an individual is immune or protected from reinfection.”

WHO’s executive director of emergency programs Dr. Mike Ryan explained that researchers are looking into the length of protection that COVID-19 antibodies can provide.

“Nobody is sure whether someone with antibodies is fully protected against having the disease or being exposed again,” he said. “Plus, some of the tests have issues with sensitivity. They may give a false negative result.”

He continued, “With regards to recovery and then reinfection, I believe we do not have the answers to that. That is an unknown.” Kerkhove detailed a study from Shanghai on Monday that showed some patients had “no detectable antibody response,” while others had a high response. She added that whether the latter group is immune to the second reinfection is “a separate question.”

Several reports from various countries detailed cases of COVID-19 patients who recovered but then tested positive again. Doctors are still trying to explain the phenomenon.

The WHO had to face fierce criticism from President Trump in the past few weeks, with Trump announcing a few days ago the US will stop funding the organization. The WHO hasn’t had a perfect response to the novel pandemic, but it’s still the world’s only health body and its expertise is required during pandemics.

Also, whatever WHO may have done wrong, the way some governments reacted to the pandemic isn’t WHO’s fault. Some countries were able to prepare fast responses to the pandemic, with Germany, Iceland, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam being examples. Others like the US squandered the weeks-long head start they had and failed to ensure they had the supplies, logistics, and protocols that could have helped them flatten the curve from the onset of local outbreaks.

In other words, the WHO’s guidance and opinion have to still count for something and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it’s not entirely good news.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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