Among the many uncertainties that remain about Covid-19 is how the human immune system responds to infection and what that means for the spread of the disease. Immunity after any infection can range from lifelong and complete to nearly nonexistent. So far, however, only the first glimmers of data are available about immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
What can scientists, and the decision makers who rely on science to inform policies, do in such a situation? The best approach is to construct a conceptual model — a set of assumptions about how immunity might work — based on current knowledge of the immune system and information about related viruses, and then identify how each aspect of that model might be wrong, how one would know and what the implications would be. Next, scientists should set out to work to improve this understanding with observation and experiment.
Much of our understanding of coronavirus immunity comes not from SARS or MERS, which have infected comparatively small numbers of people, but from the coronaviruses that spread every year causing respiratory infections ranging from a common cold to pneumonia. In two separate studies, researchers infected human volunteers with a seasonal coronavirus and about a year later inoculated them with the same or a similar virus to observe whether they had acquired immunity.
In the first study, researchers selected 18 volunteers who developed colds after they were inoculated — or “challenged,” as the term goes — with one strain of coronavirus in 1977 or 1978. Six of the subjects were re-challenged a year later with the same strain, and none was infected, presumably thanks to protection acquired with their immune response to the first infection. The other 12 volunteers were exposed to a slightly different strain of coronavirus a year later, and their protection to that was only partial.
In another study published in 1990, 15 volunteers were inoculated with a coronavirus; 10 were infected. Fourteen returned for another inoculation with the same strain a year later: They displayed less severe symptoms and their bodies produced less of the virus than after the initial challenge, especially those who had shown a strong immune response the first time around.
No such human-challenge experiments have been conducted to study immunity to SARS and MERS. But measurements of antibodies in the blood of people who have survived those infections suggest that these defenses persist for some time: two years for SARS, according to one study, and almost three years for MERS, according to another one. However, the neutralizing ability of these antibodies — a measure of how well they inhibit virus replication — was already declining during the study periods.
These studies form the basis for an educated guess at what might happen with Covid-19 patients. After being infected with SARS-CoV-2, most individuals will have an immune response, some better than others. That response, it may be assumed, will offer some protection over the medium term — at least a year — and then its effectiveness might decline.
Other evidence supports this model. A recent peer-reviewed study led by a team from Erasmus University, in the Netherlands, published data from 12 patients showing that they had developed antibodies after infection with SARS-CoV-2. Several of my colleagues and students and I have statistically analyzed thousands of seasonal coronavirus cases in the United States and used a mathematical model to infer that immunity over a year or so is likely for the two seasonal coronaviruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 — an indication perhaps of how immunity to SARS-CoV-2 itself might also behave.
If it is true that infection creates immunity in most or all individuals and that the protection lasts a year or more, then the infection of increasing numbers of people in any given population will lead to the buildup of so-called herd immunity. As more and more people become immune to the virus, an infected individual has less and less chance of coming into contact with a person susceptible to infection. Eventually, herd immunity becomes pervasive enough that an infected person on average infects less than one other person; at that point, the number of cases starts to go down. If herd immunity is widespread enough, then even in the absence of measures designed to slow transmission, the virus will be contained — at least until immunity wanes or enough new people susceptible to infection are born.
At the moment, cases of Covid-19 have been undercounted because of limited testing — perhaps by a factor of 10 in some places, like Italy as of late last month. If the undercounting is around this level in other countries as well, then a majority of the population in much (if not all) of the world still is susceptible to infection, and herd immunity is a minor phenomenon right now. The long-term control of the virus depends on getting a majority of people to become immune, through infection and recovery or through vaccination — how large a majority depends on yet other parameters of the infection that remain unknown.
One concern has to do with the possibility of reinfection. South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 91 patients who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and then tested negative for the virus later tested positive again. If some of these cases were indeed reinfections, they would cast doubt on the strength of the immunity the patients had developed.
An alternative possibility, which many scientists think is more likely, is that these patients had a false negative test in the middle of an ongoing infection, or that the infection had temporarily subsided and then re-emerged. South Korea’s C.D.C. is now working to assess the merit of all these explanations. As with other diseases for which it can be difficult to distinguish a new infection from a new flare-up of an old infection — like tuberculosis — the issue might be resolved by comparing the viral genome sequence from the first and the second periods of infection.
For now, it is reasonable to assume that only a minority of the world’s population is immune to SARS-CoV-2, even in hard-hit areas. How could this tentative picture evolve as better data come in? Early hints suggest that it could change in either direction.
It is possible that many more cases of Covid-19 have occurred than have been reported, even after accounting for limited testing. One recent study (not yet peer-reviewed) suggests that rather than, say, 10 times the number of detected cases, the United States may really have more like 100, or even 1,000, times the official number. This estimate is an indirect inference from statistical correlations. In emergencies, such indirect assessments can be early evidence of an important finding — or statistical flukes. But if this one is correct, then herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2 could be building faster than the commonly reported figures suggest.