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One of the biggest questions about COVID-19 that many of us would feel better knowing is how much immunity will vaccines, boosters and prior infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus provide us against subsequent variants.
So far, studies appear to show vaccines and boosters are less effective against the most recent SARS-CoV-2 variant, Omicron, though they still provide strong protection.
As for whether and how long previous SARS-CoV-2 infection gives you immunity against variants of the virus, researchers are starting to get clearer answers to that question. And what they’re finding may spell the end of the COVID-19 pandemic…
Having COVID-19 may give durable immunity against variants
According to a laboratory study by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), the blood of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 shows definite signs of immunity against new variants of the virus for as long as 11 months after infection.
“We think these results give us real reason for optimism,” says senior author Dr. Bill Messer, a professor in the OHSU School of Medicine. “The current variants of concern are not likely to truly escape the immune system of people who have recovered from infection.”
The study examined blood drawn from 24 people who had been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The severity of their COVID-19 cases ranged from asymptomatic to hospitalization.
The asymptomatic cases and some people with mild symptoms didn’t always show antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2 in their blood. But researchers were able to detect a specific type of immune cell known as memory B cells.
These memory B cells are programmed to produce SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the blood of all the people tested. And not only did the cells appear to respond to the original wild-type SARS-CoV-2 virus, they also recognized variants of concern.
The results suggest immune protection may endure over the long term, which could preclude the need for vaccine booster shots.
At more than 11 months, the OHSU study measured the longest post-infection period to date.
Researchers caution because this was a lab study, it isn’t possible to say for sure whether the memory B cell response they discovered would correlate to an actual effective immune response to SARS-CoV-2 exposure.
They simulated a repeat SARS-CoV-2 infection by stimulating the memory B cells to release antibodies. Although the antibodies appeared to recognize the SARS-CoV-2 variants, the researchers were unable to say for sure whether the antibodies would protect against those variants.
“We probably don’t have enough longitudinal data at this point,” says co-author Zoe Lyski, a graduate student in the Messer lab at OHSU and lead author on the study. “These data do allow us to think optimistically about handling the variants. It suggests that if someone is exposed to a variant of concern, the memory B cells generated by vaccination or natural infection are poised to respond.”
How to go about life post-pandemic
Even if you’ve already had COVID-19, Messer emphasizes that vaccination is the best protection against SARS-CoV-2 reinfection.
He also notes the vaccine is the best protection for people who have not yet had COVID-19 because it not only helps prevent infection, it greatly reduces the chances of becoming seriously ill or dying from the virus if you do become infected.
Many areas are lifting mask requirements, although you still have to wear a mask when you fly or ride public transit. For the time being, it’s a good idea to keep a supply of N95, KN95 or KF94 masks handy for when you travel. They’re still hard to find, so follow these tips if you want to safely reuse an N95 mask.
You can keep an eye on your area’s COVID-19 infection rates by checking this site from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That information may be helpful if you’re on the line about going maskless in public.
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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)–Specific Memory B Cells From Individuals With Diverse Disease Severities Recognize SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern — The Journal of Infectious Diseases