NewsCorona: New antibody findings - and a fatal fallacy

Corona: New antibody findings – and a fatal fallacy

A study from the USA shows that unvaccinated people who have recovered still have antibodies against corona after 20 months. What does that mean for vaccination?

Baltimore – “The omicron variant causes less severe symptoms than the previous ones. The corona pandemic* is almost over. Even without vaccination, people form antibodies against the virus”, such statements are probably read and heard more often these days. Is vaccination no longer necessary? Researchers from Baltimore in the USA * are now publishing their new findings and seem to be blowing the same tune: they were still able to find antibodies in unvaccinated recoveries 20 months after an infection. That sounds very much like vaccination could be superfluous. One could think. But antibodies do not mean immunity.

Antibodies alone do not mean effective protection against an infection, even if they are found in large numbers in the body. Science has known the problem for a long time: the words it uses are quickly misunderstood. The scientists from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore even draw attention to the fact that “antibody levels alone cannot be directly equated with immunity”.

But the presence of antibodies has something to do with immunity, doesn’t it? Otherwise she wouldn’t look at science. True, but they are only part of our very complex immune system. Researchers look at the antibodies because they are part of this system. A visual comparison: Just because a student brings a lot of pens to school does not mean that they will do particularly well in class. Also, how quickly he wears them out or messes them up, i.e. whether he still has any of them after 20 months, is not a real indication of his performance. It just depends on what he does with it. Of course, if he didn’t have any pens at all, we wouldn’t assume that he would be particularly good at collaborating. But how many pens a student has doesn’t tell us anything about their grades. Of course, in the context of the much more complicated immune system, the comparison is flawed. But he makes one point clear.

Antibodies against corona through infection: problems of strategy

If one cannot infer the immunity of unvaccinated convalescents from the antibodies, how does the protection of convalescents and vaccinated differ at all? Christine Falk, President of the German Society for Immunology, explains to the Tagesschau why the protection of those who have recovered is very difficult to record: “It depends on the variant and the amount of virus as well as the course. Mild courses often result in a lower immune response. In plain language, this means that we don’t even know how much of the virus a recovered person actually got. A small portion, a medium? Which variant did he have and how severe were his symptoms? All of this remains unclear. If he had only mild symptoms, then his immune system may have responded only mildly. That would be possible, especially with the omicron variant, which can cause milder symptoms*.

With vaccination there is much better control over these aspects. To stay in comparison with the student: We (science) have previously observed many other students who have had the same school day. We sent them all an info sheet in advance about what the day will look like. They then packed their backpacks accordingly. Afterwards we were able to determine who was able to work well with their material, i.e. what performance they showed. And also how many pens, notebooks and books they had brought with them on average. For the next groups, we reformulated the information sheet until everyone was really able to get used to the school day. We could see how many pens good students bring with them. However, we cannot judge how good their performance is from the number of pens alone.

Virus variants of Sars-CoV-2 designation
omicron B.1.1.529
delta B.1.617.2
alpha B.1.1.7
beta B.1.351
gamma p.1

Corona protection: It’s also possible with an infection – but how does it work?

But you can still build up the immunity of the population through infections, even if you don’t measure, count and weigh them? “Of course you can also build up this population immunity without vaccinations. The only question is what that costs – in the form of deaths, ”said Christian Drosten* to Deutschlandfunk. So it’s perfectly clear that it can be done, but the price could be high. The process would take several years, because an infection with one variant is not enough. In principle, you have to go through a distinct infection with each virus variant in order to build up sufficient protection against all variants at some point. It would be faster with a vaccination.

There is also a completely different problem with this strategy. “In contrast to a vaccination, in which this effect is ignored, many infectious diseases first damage the immune system instead of training it,” explains Drosten. Because even if the immune system reacts to an infection, the virus damages it. This could also have an impact on the defense against other diseases. This is not to be expected after a vaccination, since the body does not come into contact with the whole virus, but only with its much-cited spike protein, according to the virologist.

Corona pandemic: The price of the epidemic using the example of the USA

In addition, in Europe we cannot rely on the reporting of supposedly rare deaths from the omicron variant*. “In populations that are particularly old, look at the USA, for example, the vaccination program there went even worse and we have over 500 deaths a day there practically every day at the moment – and that for a long time,” says Drosten. The German population is also rather old in an international comparison. A look at the USA can show us how an industrialized country can fare without sufficient vaccination protection. He gives the facts for the USA: “We’ve had 1000 deaths a day for months now. And one wonders how much longer this is supposed to go on.”

Does it still get through to us what this number means? We can compare this to a tragedy from the past: the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 killed more than 2,500 US citizens in one fell swoop. The world caught its breath. Deaths related to the coronavirus since December 2019 in the United States have now reached 908,000 (New York Times, as of February 8, 2022). Does this number still take our breath away? In Germany there are around 119,000 deaths.

And what do we derive from this for ourselves? Yes, contamination by natural infection works. The price for this is human lives – a great many human lives. The pandemic is not a blow, it is a marathon. Its magnitude as a natural disaster makes it difficult to grasp. It might help to imagine that all of these people died in one fell swoop. The pandemic is a global catastrophe. Even if we are getting tired of this fact, we should not forget it. (Nadja Austel) * is an offer from IPPEN.MEDIA.

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