COVID-19: Coronavirus immunity without antibodies? The plot thickens (again!)

So do antibodies developed do to prior exposure to other coronaviruses offer protection against SARS-CoV-2?

  • Paper #1: In 40-60% of a group of individuals not exposed to SARS-CoV-2 (samples collected between 2015-18), T helper cells were reactive to SARS-CoV-2; as the authors note, the most plausible explanation is cross-reactivity due to previous infection with endemic, circulating coronaviruses responsible for the common cold.
  • Paper #2: Antibodies from a group of individuals who had been infected with the original SARS virus (2002-04) failed to neutralize SARS-CoV-2. This seems to contradict paper #1 since genetic analysis indicates that these two viruses are closely related. OTOH, these individuals retained immunity to SARS as much as 17 years after initial infection.
  • Paper #3: Published on May 18th, this most recent paper shows that at least one monoclonal antibody for SARS (derived from memory B cells of a single individual infected in 2003) effectively neutralizes SARS-CoV-2 (contra paper #2).

These contradictory findings are exactly how science works when there’s a new phenomenon. Uncertainty is to be expected. Every finding is an exciting potential lead, but nothing is etched in stone (yet).


[1] Grifoni, A., Weiskopf, D., Ramirez, S.I., Mateus, J., Dan, J.M., Moderbacher,
C.R., Rawlings, S.A., Sutherland, A., Premkumar, L., Jadi, R.S., Marrama, D., de Silva, A.M., Frazier, A., Carlin, A., Greenbaum, J.A., Peters, B., Krammer, F., Smith, D.M., Crotty, S., Sette, A., Targets of T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in humans with COVID-19 disease and unexposed individuals, Cell (2020), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.05.015.

[2] Anderson DE, Tan CW, Chia WN, et al. Lack of cross-neutralization by SARS patient sera towards SARS-CoV-2. Emerging Microbes & Infections. 2020;9(1):900-902. doi:10.1080/22221751.2020.1761267

[3] Pinto, D., Park, Y., Beltramello, M. et al. Cross-neutralization of SARS-CoV-2 by a human monoclonal SARS-CoV antibody. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2349-y

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