A widespread coronavirus outbreak aboard a Seattle-based fishing boat could use the first direct evidence that antibodies can offer protective immunity to the virus, according to a report released Tuesday.
The ship’s crew members were studied before and after her 18-day trip in May which would eventually see more than 85% of the crew infected with the virus within days of returning to port.
Before the ship departed, blood samples were taken and showed that three of the 122 people on board had a positive antibody response, indicating that they had already been infected and recovered, according to researchers at the University of Washington and from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center – which analyzed the natural experiment.
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While 104 of the 120 crew members would test positive for the coronavirus, the three who had neutralizing antibodies beforehand were not infected.
“This is a strong indication that the presence of neutralizing antibodies is associated with protection against the virus,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, co-author of the report published on MedRxiv, according to the Seattle Times. “This is encouraging news.”
Blood tests of nearly the entire crew and the staggering infection rate up close mean that it’s likely the three were exposed to the virus during the outbreak, said Mark Slifka, immunologist and vaccine developer at the Oregon Health & Science University.
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“Although this is a small study, it offers a remarkable, real human experience,” wrote Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, in a commentary on the report that did not has not yet been peer reviewed. “Who would have thought that immunological research on fishing boats could be so instructive?”
Testing before the study left revealed that none of the crew members were positive for the virus. However, 18 days after the start of its voyage, the ship returned to port after one person fell ill and had to be hospitalized. Testing over the next 50 days showed 104 crew members were believed to be infected.
Greninger said the 15 other crew members who were never infected may have had jobs on the boat that protected them from exposure, the newspaper said. He added that three other crew members had antibodies that bind to the capsule of the novel coronavirus, but failed to block the infection.
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The vessel in question was believed to have been the FV American Dynasty, which was fishing off the coast of Washington when the epidemic struck, Greninger told the Seattle Times.
The report comes as a series of new studies have found signs of strong and lasting immunity in people who have developed mild coronavirus infections, according to the New York Times.
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The next step will be to determine the duration of immune protection, but the studies are seen as an encouraging sign in the vaccine race.