For those who have already been infected with Covid-19, the idea of having a certificate of immunity to allow a return to normal life seems an attractive prospect.
The proposal, presented by Secretary of Health Matt Hancock earlier this month, is based on the theory that having the virus and beating it means that we have developed antibodies to fight it, and these remain in our body for life if we are still exposed to the virus.
However, new evidence on the behavior of the virus has cast doubt on the plan, as it suggests that people infected with it may not be protected from further capture.
South Korea has protected its 51 million citizens through ruthless testing and contact tracing.
New evidence from South Korea has suggested that people infected with the coronavirus may not be protected from further capture. (Stock Image)
But he revealed that despite the fact that the number of coronavirus deaths has dropped to 214, some people who have recovered from Covid-19 test positive for the virus a second time.
At a press conference on April 6, officials announced that 51 of these cases had been identified. By the end of last week, that number had risen to 74 – and is now 116.
No details of the cases have been released, but the revelation has raised fears that people may not develop immunity to the virus by releasing antibodies and may be re-infected.
The discovery in South Korea also raised the question of whether some people have been re-infected with the virus, or whether the virus has remained in their bodies and reactivated in some way.
This leads experts to wonder if apparently asymptomatic survivors could also infect others here.
Above all, it also raises a question mark over whether we can hope to eliminate the threat of coronaviruses.
Leading experts such as David Heymann, professor of epidemiology of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine are now concerned that the virus may become endemic.
This means that it will become a permanent feature of our infectious disease landscape, periodically causing potentially fatal epidemics, just like the flu.
The first evidence that people can be re-infected came in February, when Japanese health officials reported that a woman in her 40s had tested positive for the virus three weeks after receiving the green light.
In addition to washing your hands regularly to cut the chain of infection, use disposable paper towels or dedicate a separate towel to each person at home, separate and wash them daily, says Dr. Gero Baiarda, general practitioner
In March, researchers from Fudan University in China tested blood samples from 175 patients who had recovered from Covid-19 and found that a third of them had produced very low levels of antibodies. . This suggests that they would not be protected if they were exposed to the virus again.
Professor Heymann, who chairs the Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Risks for the World Health Organization, is concerned. “The coronavirus may not be able to be eliminated from the body,” he said.
“South Korea is trying to find out if these tests show a re-infection or an upsurge, that is to say a recurrence of the same infection. But these data will not be available for a few weeks.
“The feeling is that there are antibodies produced and that they can be protective, but to say that you are protected enough to go out and expose yourself again to the infection may not be wise because you do not know the level of protection you are getting from these antibodies.
“The chances are that Covid-19 can persist longer than we hope, and it can persist indefinitely. “
The new findings have now raised concerns that people may not develop immunity to the virus. (Stock Image)
The suggestion that Covid-19 may be here to stay is recognized by other experts. “We would expect Covid-19 to become endemic,” Jan Albert, professor of infectious disease control at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, told the BBC recently.
“And it would be surprising if it did not show seasonality,” he added. “The big question is whether the susceptibility of this virus to [the seasons] will influence its ability to spread in the event of a pandemic. We are not sure.
But a spokesperson for Public Health England declined to comment on the length of protection provided by the antibodies.
She points to evidence that the recovered patients suffered “prolonged elimination” of the genetic material from the virus, which would then appear in tests.
“It is important to note that detecting viral genes is not the same as infectiousness, but it is a new virus that scientists are studying around the clock,” she said.
Wendy Barclay, professor of virology at Imperial College London, agrees with the theory of excretion.
“We need to know if these people in South Korea have reported recurring symptoms such as fever and if an infectious virus has been isolated [by these later tests] – I suppose not. Clearly, we need more evidence, ”she said.
“The idea that the virus persists in someone and then reactivates is difficult to understand,” said Professor Paul Kellam, an expert in viral genomics at Imperial College London.
“From what we know, it does not persist or reactivate. We do not know the details of those he appears to have returned to, and in any case, he is a small subgroup of people affected by the coronavirus. “
He also rejected the suggestion that the Fudan group might not be protected. “Of the 175 in this study, we can show that the antibodies are functional and can neutralize the virus,” he says.
Experts agree that no one knows what our future world will look like with regard to Covid-19.
“No test available is as specific as it needs to be for public health policy to change,” said Robert Dingwall, sociologist at the University of Nottingham Trent, former government consultant on pandemic influenza planning. .
“We don’t even have a good idea of who can be immunized and the length of immunity.
“The most we can hope for is a gradual dismantling of the lockdown once the number of infections starts to drop, but we still need to monitor the activity of the virus,” he said.
Immunity to other viruses does not appear to be permanent either. “Immunity to SARS appears to decline after a year,” says Professor Dingwall.
“Vaccination against childhood illnesses like measles does not provide lifelong immunity, but since most people are vaccinated, you get collective immunity so people are protected. “
What I would have liked to know: people affected by Covid-19 share their ideas
This week: the runny eyes were a sign of infection. Good Health editor Lucy Elkins, 50, mother of a child from Southfields, in south-west London, said:
Good Health editor Lucy Elkins, 50, of Southfields, in south-west London, had a little conjunctivitis before developing a headache and stomach pain.
A little conjunctivitis: this is what I thought when I woke up to discover that my right eye was bloodshot and was crying. So I went to work as usual and went out at lunchtime to get eye drops.
However, in two days, I had headaches and stomach cramps, quickly followed by a fever and a feeling that something was irritating my lungs – it was almost as if I had inhaled dust.
At first, I just said to myself, “How can this happen to me? I am in good shape, I eat my vegetables and I cycle to work almost every day – a 12-mile trip. But as my temperature went up and my chest became more and more tense, it became clear that I had symptoms of Covid-19.
Googling everything I could about the virus, I discovered that red eyes are often an early sign. I feel guilty for unintentionally infecting other people. If I had known it was a sign, I would have immediately isolated myself.
So if you develop red eyes – well, it could just be conjunctivitis. But in today’s climate, it is worth being careful.