Quick disappearance of Covid antibodies not reason to panic, Dutch experts say

Stock image of a Covid-19 coronavirus microscope analysis
Stock image of a Covid-19 coronavirus microscope analysis DmyToDepositPhotosDeposit Photos

Studies in Britain and Germany recently revealed that antibodies against the coronavirus quickly disappear from the blood of coronavirus patients. This means that people who recovered from the virus, could get it again. While this is not the best case scenario for vaccine development, it does not mean that recovered patients have no protection against the virus, Dutch experts said. It simply means that a possible vaccine may have to be an annual one, like the flu vaccine.

"The research shows that the antibodies to corona go down quickly after the infection. This happens after a few months, which is fast," Marion Koopmans, virologist and member of the government's Outbreak Management Team, said to RTL Nieuws. "This is not to say that people who have had the virus have no protection at all."

Professor of immunology Marjolein van Egmond agrees. "Obviously you would have preferred that it was different, that those antibodies remain at the same level for two years and protect people against infection. But that does not necessarily mean that people didn't build up immunity to Covid-19 when they had the disease," she said to NOS. 

But it will have consequences for how the virus is approached. For example, group immunity is off the table. This is also a setback for the plasma program, in which researchers are looking into whether Covid-19 can be treated with antibody-containing blood of recovered patients. "From this research it can be concluded that you will certainly not be able to use that blood for very long," Koopmans said.

The research also raises questions about a vaccine, and how long it will be able to protect people. But the research results can't be directly translated to a vaccine, Van Egmond said to NOS. Immune systems and vaccines are more complicated than that. "You can turn all kinds of buttons. You can give a vaccine a different composition, more of the active substance so that you also get more antibodies. Or you can give the vaccine - once it exists - not once, but two or three times and build up a more powerful memory response."

There are multiple vaccines that are given more than once. The flu vaccination happens annually, for example, every year with an adjusted composition. Koopmans thinks this is a likely scenario for the coronavirus vaccine, she said to RTL. "In that respect, an annual vaccine is not unrealistic," she said. "But for the time being it is already quite a task to find a vaccine at all."

Van Egmond said that the British and German research results are "not necessarily cause for panic," but she added that "it probably means we will have to put more effort in".