Understanding COVID-19: Could You Have a Natural Immunity?

Let’s find out if some people have a natural immunity to the current coronavirus in this article by Sara Winokur.

Most of us (thankfully) have never faced a pandemic such as the one affecting nearly every aspect of our daily lives today. The Spanish flu, polio, and cholera epidemics are a distant memory at best. But with an ever-increasing connectivity across the globe, the exotic pathogens that cause outbreaks in the jungles and forests of Africa and densely populated regions of South-East Asia have reached our shores. That’s why understanding Covid-19 is important.

The steps we can take to stay healthy and protect our loved ones are clear: vigorous hand-washing, social distancing, and—if symptoms occur—self-isolation and seek medical attention. But what do we know about what causes the current disease, COVID-19?

Why are certain groups more resistant? How do our immune systems work to keep us healthy? Understanding these and other questions can help us gain a measure of control in these worrying times. Knowledge is power!

First, let’s determine: what is COVID-19?

COVID-19 stands for COronaVIrusDisease-2019. It’s caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, one of several members in the class of coronaviruses associated with respiratory diseases such as the common cold, pneumonia, and bronchiolitis. Corona means crown, which is what the outer shell of the virus looks like. SARS-CoV-2 is a novel coronavirus because it hadn’t been identified until recently.

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world. So far, at least 114 countries have been affected by COVID-19, causing the World Health Organization to declare the outbreak a pandemic. An epidemic, on the other hand, is a sudden increase in cases of a disease that’s unique to one country or community.

Do some people have a natural immunity for COVID-19?  What does the science say?

There are two types of immunity: natural (innate) and acquired. Natural immunity is our immune defense that is present by birth without prior exposure to pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.). Natural immunity provides an immediate response to foreign invaders by recruiting white blood cells and other components to attack the pathogen. However, this response treats all foreign invaders in much the same way.

Unfortunately, we do not have a natural immunity that is specific to COVID-19. Our immune systems react in ‘damage-control’ mode, triggering white blood cells to spring into action. Many of the symptoms that make a person suffer during an infection—fever, malaise, headache—result from the activities of the immune system trying to eliminate the infection from the body. But the natural immune system cannot specifically target the COVID-19 virus. If you want to strengthen your immune system and prevent migraines, you can start taking magnesium supplements.

That specific attack on the COVID-19 virus can only be accomplished by acquired immunity, which develops only when our body is exposed to pathogenic antigens (e.g. viral particles or bacteria surface proteins). This exposure leads to our immune system developing antibodies after either an infection or vaccination.

A vaccine works by training the immune system to recognize and combat pathogens. To do this, certain molecules from the virus or bacteria must be introduced into the body to trigger a response. The immune system can then safely learn to recognize the pathogens as hostile invaders, produce antibodies, and remember them for the future. If the bacteria or virus reappears, the immune system will recognize the antigens immediately and attack aggressively well before the pathogen can spread and cause sickness.

Are different groups of people more resistant to COVID-19?

There definitely is an age bias. Children under 10 account for only 1% of cases while adults 30-70 years old account for 87% of cases.  Seniors are much more likely to be severely affected, just as they are with seasonal flu. This may be because they have weaker immune systems, underlying health problems, or live in residential senior communities. Another possibility is that the lining of their lungs may contain more receptors for the virus to latch onto.

Could someone carry the COVID-19 virus and not know it?

Absolutely. Infection with the COVID-19 virus does not necessarily lead to symptoms or disease. Depending on how efficient your immune system is and your general state of health, the disease may be mild, moderate, or not even apparent. In fact, it’s now believed that most cases develop after exposure to someone that’s infected but not showing any symptoms.

Disease occurs when the cells in your body are damaged as a result of the infection. Many symptoms such as fever, malaise, headache result from the activities of the immune system trying to eliminate the infection from the body. Heat (fever) inactivates viruses and fatigue may result from the high energy demands of the immune system fighting the virus.

How can I protect my child from COVID-19 infection?

You can encourage your child to help stop the spread of COVID-19 by teaching them to do the same things everyone should do: wash hands often with soap and water or hand sanitizer, avoid people who are coughing and sneezing, clean and disinfect high-touch household surfaces such as. tables, doorknobs, light switches, and remotes.

If you have young children, remember to launder items such as plush toys and dry items completely.

Remember, this is especially important if your children have contact with seniors such as grandparents, as these represent the most vulnerable people among us.

What if it remains in the body like HIV? Will this mean everyone will eventually be infected?

Some viruses like HIV and varicella (chicken pox) can lie dormant in the body and reappear at a later time to cause symptoms, either the same as the initial disease or, in the case of varicella, a new disease: shingles. While this does not appear to be the case with coronaviruses, there is still much that is known about SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19.

A vaccine will not be available for some time, as the development of the vaccine and safety measures are crucial to ensuring that more good than harm is done. Those that have had the disease will have antibodies to fight off future infections, but for those of us that have not been exposed to the virus, it will be essential to be vaccinated.

Vaccines don’t just work on an individual level, they protect entire populations. Once enough people are immunized, opportunities for an outbreak of disease become so low even people who aren’t immunized benefit since the virus won’t be able to establish a foothold in the population. This is called ‘herd immunity’. We all need to consider how our actions affect others.

Now, more than ever, we need to protect those among us who are most vulnerable and cannot be immunized: infants, young children, the elderly, people with severe allergies, pregnant women, or people with compromised immune systems. Let’s come together to help one another, as this is probably the most important kindness we can extend to others during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding Covid-19 is more important now than ever.

Sara Winokur is a geneticist, researcher, and author. Sara has a master’s degree in cytogenetics and a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. Her research helped identify mutations underlying muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, dwarfism, and a rare craniofacial syndrome. She continues to work as a consultant on potential therapies for genetic disease.

As an ovarian cancer “thriver”, Sara has a sense of gratitude, strength, and perspective. She is the author of the forthcoming Double Blind: The Icelandic Manuscript Murders. She resides with her husband and writes in Southern California.

Sara Winokur Author of Double Blind
Sara Winokur
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Managing Editor