A comprehensive study on 78 healthcare workers across the UK has found high variability in immune system response following COVID-19. According to a preprint report of the study on Research Square, several subjects displayed no immune memory to the sickness after infection.
According to co-author Dr. Christina Dold: “Our concern is that these people may be at risk of contracting COVID-19 infection for a second time, especially with new variants circulating.”
The study — conducted with support from the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium — took monthly blood samples for the first six months after infection to measure immune system response to the disease. For comparison, eight patients who experienced severe cases were also included. The researchers were specifically looking for the presence of coronavirus-specific antibodies, T cells, and B cells, which produce antibodies and preserve memory of the disease.
Using a cutting-edge machine learning method, the study aimed to identify patterns in the data that might reveal a correlation between initial disease severity and immune response with long-term immunity.
Co-author Dr. Adriana Tomic of the Oxford Vaccine Group explained: “For this study, we wanted to try to understand if there are immune factors that can predict how likely it is that a person can maintain immunity against SARS-CoV-2 over time.”
The researchers found an early immune signature that could potentially be used to predict immune response strength six months after infection. The signature, which is linked to cellular and antibody immunity, can be detected as early as one month post infection.
The groundbreaking finding marks the first time scientists have identified such a signature and is a major boon to our understanding of how long-term immunity develops. When comparing blood samples taken at month one and month six, individuals with a weak immune response signature did not produce antibodies to neutralize the Alpha variant of COVID-19 infection. When exposed to the Beta variant, the samples failed to mount an antibody response at all.
Dold emphasizes the importance of COVID vaccination, even for those who have already been infected. Referring to the results of this study: “This means that it is very important that we all get the COVID vaccine when offered even if you think you may have previous had COVID-19.”
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