Antibodies, originally thought to be our only form of immunity against the coronavirus have proven to be fleeting and unreliable. People who have contracted the coronavirus haven’t always tested positive for antibodies, and even if they do, the antibodies may only last a few months.
As faith in antibodies dwindle T-cells have become the new hope for lasting immunity to the coronavirus. So, what is aT-cell? T- cells are a type of white blood cell that help our bodies fight off viruses by memorizing information about the virus and using that to attack it. T- cells also inform other cells, known as B-cells, to create antibodies.
A new study from the journal of Science shows that 20%-50% of people have a “cross reactive T-cell memory”. Essentially, our bodies T-cells are using information they have memorized from similar viruses, like SARS, to fight the coronavirus. Another similar study found that 15 out of 18 patients hospitalized with COVID19 had T-cells that were able to target proteins in the coronavirus. This means that the T-cells are arming themselves with genetic information about the coronavirus so they can fight it if reinfection occurs. Having the information to fight off the coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean you’re immune to it or won’t get sick, a lot of the time a robust T-cell reaction just means you’ll suffer a less severe case of COVID-19 if you get reinfected.
While the research is promising, scientists are quick to warn this doesn’t mean the pandemic is ending anytime soon. The positive research results have been spun by Dr. Scott Atlas, a member of the Coronavirus Task Force, as the path to herd immunity in the absence of lasting antibodies. In August Atlas claimed the pandemic could be over byOctober due to T-cell immunity but scientists and public health experts said that was not correct and time has proven them right. A week into October and the pandemic is still ravaging through the country, the White House and is on an alarming upwards trend across many states, especially in the Midwest.
What Atlas’s evaluation fails to understand is that T-cells don’t necessarily provide immunity, but rather allow the body to fight the virus off more efficiently if infected. That means someone might have mild symptoms because their T-cells are attacking the virus. However, that person could potentially spread the virus to someone with a compromised immune system, and in the United States it is estimated that 37.6% of the population, or 92.6 million people, are over the age of 65 and/or have underlying conditions that would make COVID-19 potentially deadly.
Shane Crotty, an immunologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, warned against being overly optimistic over the T-cell findings saying “The most likely effect would be not a prevention of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Instead, the cross-reactive T cell memory would reduce the disease severity, such that fewer people would become severely ill or die from COVID-19.”. So while the T-cells are not our path to herd immunity they still provide some level of protection against the virus.
The goal of herd immunity is to let a portion of the population become infected so they become immune to the virus, making it harder for the virus to spread. If we took this approach, the death count would increase drastically and unnecessarily. And even if it were possible to achieve herd immunity this way, the truth is that infection rates, case counts, and death counts fail to paint the bigger picture. COVID-19 has been found to cause lasting and serious complications, even after a patient has “recovered.”
A new study shows that COVID-19 patients, even if they suffered from a mild case, are having long term problems months after recovering. 78% of patients showed structural changes to the heart, 78% had a biomarker signaling cardiac injury typically found after a heart attack and 60% showed signs of inflammation. In addition, according to another study in Arizona, roughly half of asymptomatic adults who tested positive had significantly reduced lung capacity. While T-cells may allow us to fight off the virus and have milder symptoms, they provide no protections over the lasting implications of COVID-19, and as this is a novel virus we are still learning about, there could be side effects we are not yet aware of.
The notion that T-cells could provide us with herd immunity is a narrative being pushed by the current administration in an attempt to reopen the nation at the expense of American lives. Atlas denies that the administration is pushing a herd immunity approach but the rhetoric says otherwise. Atlas and the administration have advocated for states, schools and businesses to reopen before the virus has been properly contained or a safe and effective vaccine has been approved. President Trump himself asked Dr. Fauci on March 14th “Why don’t we let this wash over the country?“, insinuating that natural herd immunity and the unnecessary deaths that result from it as a viable strategy to tackle the pandemic.
Herd immunity is an inoperable strategy to take during a pandemic. The United States has already lost 210K lives to the virus. Herd immunity endangers the most vulnerable amongst us and quite simply doesn’t work. The T-cell research is promising, but it won’t end the pandemic, and the rhetoric suggesting that it will is dangerous and confusing to the American people.
Even if the data supported natural herd immunity, without a vaccine, over 200 million Americans would have to get infected before we reach this threshold. Put another way, even if the current pace of the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the United States, we wouldn’t reach herd immunity in 2021.
We need a safe and effective vaccine and measures put in place to contain the virus. Some experts say that even with a vaccine, COVID-19 is here to stay, much like the seasonal flu. Contained but not banished. The sooner leadership in Washington DC adopts policies prioritizing the health of the nation, the sooner we can get to a semblance of normalcy and dig ourselves out of the pandemic inspired recession. Unfortunately, such leadership has been lacking to the detriment of our economy and American lives.