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A new study shows that those infected with the coronavirus may only remain immune to reinfection for a matter of months.
The revelation presents the possibility that people could become infected by COVID-19 year after year, and doctors are warning that repeated exposure to the virus puts patients at higher risk of more severe symptoms such as lung disease.
The study found that the antibodies the human body produces to fight the coronavirus peaked about three weeks after symptoms first presented, but the level of antibodies quickly declined.
The study, which was the first of its kind, was conducted by researchers at King’s College London, who tested 96 patients and healthcare workers for antibodies over the course of three months.
Blood tests revealed that while 60% of people built up a “potent” antibody response initially, just 17% retained the same potency three months later. Antibody levels fell as much as 23-fold over the period and in some cases became undetectable.
The research was published in a pre-print paper online, but the findings have yet to be peer-reviewed.
However, the study’s findings line up with other research that suggests immunity to COVID-19 is short-lived and that herd immunity will not be a solution to the pandemic, which has so far infected almost 13 million globally and killed nearly 570,000.
“Most importantly, it puts another nail in the coffin of the dangerous concept of herd immunity,” Jonathan Heeney, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, told the Guardian.
In the early days of the pandemic, the U.K. government initially considered eschewing a strict lockdown in the hopes of gaining herd immunity — but the plan was quickly reversed when scientists showed how that strategy would overwhelm the U.K.’s health system.
This study suggests that just like the four other types of coronavirus currently in widespread circulation — they cause the common cold — the SARS-CoV-2 virus could result in repeated infections, possibly on a seasonal basis.
And given the damage COVID-19 causes to some patients on initial infection, experts are warning that repeated exposure could have dire consequences.
“I cannot underscore how important it is that the public understands that getting infected by this virus is not a good thing,” Heeney added. “Some of the public, especially the youth, have become somewhat cavalier about getting infected, thinking that they would contribute to herd immunity.”
“Not only will they place themselves at risk, and others, by getting infected, and losing immunity, they may even put themselves at greater risk of more severe lung disease if they get infected again in the years to come.”
Cover: Covid-19 patients are being treated at the Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday July 10, 2020. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize this week said South Africa could run out of available hospital beds within the month. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)