Don’t Lose Hope: A COVID-19 Vaccine is Still Viable

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I’m a big fan of supporting local journalism, and usually the San Francisco Chronicle is kind of good! But not this week. This week, they decided to print this: “With coronavirus antibodies fading fast, vaccine hopes fade, too.” From the jump I have to debunk this shit: no, hope for a coronavirus vaccine isn’t fading. This is a bullshit headline and it accompanies a mostly badly written bullshit article.

Let’s start with the study it’s based on, which is not bullshit, It’s a pre-print (so not peer-reviewed) titled “Longitudinal evaluation and decline of antibody responses in SARS-CoV-2 infection,” and it deals with a valid question that scientists have been concerned with for some time now: when a person is infected with COVID-19, their immune system produces antibodies to fight it. How long do those antibodies last? The answer to that question can help us understand the risk of someone being reinfected with the disease and also the best way to develop a vaccine, because antibodies are a key part of how your body fights off infections.

But here’s the thing: they’re not the only things. For a long time now scientists have known that your immune system is supported by white blood cells, which come in several delicious flavors. Macrophages are white cells that chow down on bacteria, dying cells, dead cells, and other random things that you don’t want floating around your body. They leave behind antigens, which they highlight for two other kinds of white cells to attack. Those two are known as B-cells and T-cells. B-cells produce antibodies to kill the germs, and T-cells attack infected cells. Once the threat is over, in most cases the antibodies go away.

Does that mean that once all the antibodies are gone you no longer have an immunity to the disease in question? Happily the answer to that is “maybe not!” Because in many cases, your T- and B-cells “remember” the recipe for producing those antibodies and killing the germs. It’s like Chex Mix! You can’t have a constant supply of Chex Mix laying around the house unless you’re rich or live with my mom but you can keep the recipe on hand for when you are overwhelmed with the understandable desire to stuff yourself with the salty, buttery deliciousness that is chex. Just like you don’t need antibodies for every different germ that might find its way into you, so long as your cells have the recipe to produce them.

Of course, there are plenty of diseases that you can’t be immune to forever off of one infection, or one vaccine (which more or less simulates an infection to teach your cells how to respond). You should get a flu shot every single year, for instance, because your immunity can wear down over time AND because the most likely flu culprit changes from season to season.

So back to the study — King’s College researchers followed about 90 COVID-19 patients for three months after their infection and upon testing their antibodies found that their level of antibodies peaked about three weeks after the first sign of symptoms and start declining after two or three months. Here’s something they did not study: anything about any of the vaccines currently being developed. Their finding was essentially that COVID-19 antibodies behave like pretty much all other coronavirus antibodies we know about — they don’t hang out forever. They can last a few months or a few years. That’s normal. The timing of it might help the researchers developing vaccines, or maybe it won’t. It can definitely help with antibody testing, which is used to tell whether or not someone has previously been infected with COVID-19 — if it’s been a few months, this study suggests that maybe those antibodies won’t be found.

But it definitely, absolutely does not mean that “vaccine hopes are fading.” That’s some clickbait panic porn bullshit and the Chronicle should pull that article now. As of this recording it’s been up for several days so it’s probably too late now anyway but the very least they could do is issue a correction. But hey, this is what you get when major newspapers cut educated science journalists from their staff, as pretty much all of them did throughout the past decade. Now we’re in a pandemic and the newspapers we trust are often posting great, helpful information and occasionally interspersing it with complete and utter garbage like this.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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