As experts have warned, getting COVID once doesn’t mean you can’t get it again. Though roughly 75 percent of recovered patients produce an antibody response which could offer some protection in the months following an infection, researchers still don’t know exactly how long this protection lasts, or its exact level of efficacy.
However, in November of 2020, the FDA approved new antibody tests which made it easier for researchers to determine the type of antibody in a recovered patient’s blood. It became apparent that in very rare cases, certain patients naturally produced a protective response that renders those individuals all but immune.
These patients, through some stroke of genetic luck, have what some are calling “super antibodies”—the holy grail of viral protection. Read on to learn about how these rare super antibodies could protect you from COVID (even if you don’t produce them yourself), and for more on what your blood can tell you about your COVID case, check out If You Have This Blood Type, You’re at a High Risk of Severe COVID.
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Most COVID patients develop some antibodies against the virus.
For most of the population, getting COVID or becoming inoculated results in the body producing what’s known as “binding antibodies.” These are proteins that bind to the pathogen, but do not stop their infectivity.
These antibodies alert the immune system to a new infection’s presence, signaling for white blood cells to destroy the threat. And for more on protecting yourself from COVID, check out Dr. Fauci Just Debunked the 4 Biggest Myths About the COVID Vaccine.
But these antibodies do not neutralize the virus.
The biggest shortcoming of binding antibodies is that they don’t actually stop the virus from replicating within the body—only neutralizing antibodies do that. Neutralizing antibodies bind with the COVID pathogen’s spike protein and stop it from entering new cells or replicating rather than relying on the host’s immune system to combat the virus.
You can imagine it like this: the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses a key—the spike protein on its outer layer—to enter healthy cells. The virus then undergoes “a structural change that allows the viral membrane to fuse with the cell membrane. The viral genes then enter the host cell to be copied and produce more viruses,” explains a report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). By binding to the spike proteins, neutralizing antibodies cover the “key” to stop that process of fusing, entry, and replication.
Super-antibodies totally resist COVID-19.
That’s exactly what makes these “super antibodies” so super. They neutralize the virus by stopping the COVID pathogen from replicating in healthy cells, quickly isolating the harmful cells until they die off. Even when diluted 10,000 times, these super antibodies still resist COVID-19, says NBC News. And for more on stopping the spread, check out The CDC Has Issued a Warning Against These 4 Face Coverings.
But they’re incredibly rare.
While so-called super antibodies offer excellent protection against COVID-19, they occur after less than five percent of infections, experts say. Some studies place that number lower, with as few as one percent of recovered patients producing neutralizing antibodies.
The good news? Scientists are using those rare natural cases to study whether they can be replicated and mass produced as an antibody treatment for the broader population.
While therapeutic antibody treatments like the drug Regeneron currently exist on the market, they “generally exist in the body for a short time, and their treatment efficacy depends on a variety of factors,” according to Nature. The rare patients that develop these antibodies naturally could lead to significant breakthroughs in conferring longer lasting protection in a more widely produced product.