This is very bad news for vaccine developers trying to find a vaccine against the coronavirus.
The World Health Organization has thrown cold water on the notion that people who have had the virus are immune from becoming infected again.
Some governments had been toying with the idea of developing mass testing for antibodies — a response by our immune system to many viral diseases that prevents us from getting sick again. If you have antibodies triggered by the coronavirus, it means that you were already infected and recovered.
There had been discussions that eventually, governments would be able to issue “immunity passports”for people who had been infected by COVID-19 and recovered. But the WHO is discouraging that idea.
“At this point in the pandemic, there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate,’ ” WHO said.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove from WHO has previously said it’s not known whether people who have been exposed to the virus become completely immune. The new WHO brief underscores that stance, and jibes with other scientific statements about the idea of developing immunity.
This doesn’t mean that antibodies couldn’t offer some protection against reinfection for many people. And there still may be a way to develop a vaccine to counter the virus.
Vaccines work by triggering the immune system to create antibodies against a specific virus or bacteria. But testing for those antibodies can be tricky. Apparently, it’s very easy to get false positive and false negative readings. New York City conducted many antibody tests this week and discovered that one in five New Yorkers have the antibodies against the coronavirus. Does that mean one in five people in New York has actually been infected by the coronavirus? No one can say for sure. Governor Cuomo is probably wasting his money trying to do a large-scale antibody survey.
During a Friday briefing, the Infectious Diseases Society of America warned that not enough is known about antibody testing to assume immunity.
Dr. Mary Hayden, spokesperson for IDSA and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Rush University Medical Center, said, “We do not know whether or not patients who have these antibodies are still at risk of reinfection with Covid-19. At this point, I think we have to assume that they could be at risk of reinfection.”
Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that a significant percentage of people who tested positive for the virus and recovered have been reinfected.
In South Korea, health officials are trying to solve a mystery: why 163 people who recovered from coronavirus have retested positive, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The same has been recorded in China, where some coronavirus patients tested positive after seeming to recover, although there are no official figures.
That raises the question: can you get reinfected with coronavirus?
At the very least, this means a delay in developing a safe, effective vaccine. In the interim, there may be pharmaceutical fixes that will keep people alive. But until that vaccine is on the market and being distributed around the world, the risk of reinfection will slow a return to completely normal life.
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