Promising COVID-19 studies show hope for long-lasting immunity

The immune system seems able to "remember" the coronavirus, and therefore able to prevent — or minimize the severity of — reinfection.

Coronavirus vaccine research.

Observation of the gel that assesses the purity of the antigens produced in the laboratory on March 24, 2020 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Pedro Vilela / Stringer
  • A handful of new studies suggest that people who had been infected with COVID-19 had "memory" T cells that were able to facilitate a unique immune response against subsequent exposure to the virus.
  • "This calls for some optimism about herd immunity, and potentially a vaccine," Smita Iyer, an immunologist at the University of California, Davis told The New York Times.
  • Still, many questions remain about long-term immunity.

Scientists continue to see promising signs suggesting that people can develop strong, long-lasting immunity to COVID-19.

A set of new studies found that antibodies and immune cells capable of recognizing SARS-CoV2 persisted in people months after contracting the virus.

This finding may seem to contradict some recent reports. On Friday, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines saying that immunity from COVID-19 likely only lasts three months after contraction. What's more, some studies have shown that patients' antibody levels drop significantly after a few months.

Coronavirus TestingCoronavirus Testing Laboratory In Glasgow

Photo by Jane Barlow - WPA Pool/Getty Images

But antibodies aren't the whole story. After all, antibodies are inanimate proteins, and they usually die off soon after the body battles an infection. But the immune system also has T cells and B cells. These so-called "memory" cells are able to remember a virus, and then strategically mobilize the immune system against it if it enters the body again.

immune system response

Graphic of immune system response

Sciencia58 via Wikipedia Commons

With COVID-19, these cells seem to be doing their job. How can scientists tell? For one, there's no solid evidence that people are contracting COVID-19 multiple times, despite some ambiguous reports. But more empirically: Recent studies have detected memory T cells in people who've recovered from COVID-19. And after those cells were exposed to the virus, they not only produced virus-fighting responses, but also increased in number.

"This is very promising," Smita Iyer, an immunologist at the University of California, Davis told The New York Times. "This calls for some optimism about herd immunity, and potentially a vaccine."

Coronavirus vaccine testingResearchers Work On Developing Test For Coronavirus At Hackensack Meridian's Center For Discovery and Innovation

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Also promising is the finding that strong immune responses were observed even among patients who had mild cases of COVID-19, suggesting:

"...you can still get durable immunity without suffering the consequences of infection," Iyer added.

Still, scientists have much to learn about COVID-19. For example, it's unclear how long people might enjoy this kind of immune-memory protection, or whether people who suffered severe cases might be equally protected.

But the recent studies are a good sign for the researchers who are currently developing more than 165 COVID-19 vaccines: If the immune system is proving able to remember the virus, that should make it easier for vaccines to do their job.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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