With no treatment or vaccine yet for COVID-19, there’s been talk of using antibody tests to see when it might be safe to relax social-distancing guidelines. These blood tests can show who’s been exposed to the virus and who hasn’t. That’s important because many people who have COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms.
The hope is that people who’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus will have immunity to it. When you have immunity, your body can recognize and fight off the virus that causes COVID-19. But it’s possible that people who’ve had COVID-19 can get sick again — and maybe infect other people.
We don’t have enough information yet to know which is the case. But national health organizations are doing research to try to find some answers.
How Do We Become Immune?
When germs enter your body, your immune system springs into action. Here’s how it works:
Bacteria and viruses like the one that causes COVID-19 have proteins called antigens on their surfaces. Each type of germ has its own unique antigen.
White blood cells of your immune system make proteins called antibodies to fight the antigen. Antibodies attach to antigens the way a key fits into a lock, and they destroy the invading germ.
Once you’ve been exposed to a virus, your body makes memory cells. If you’re exposed to that same virus again, these cells recognize it. They tell your immune system to make antibodies against it.
Vaccines work in much the same way. They expose your body to an antigen that trains your immune system to fight that germ in the future. Because vaccines contain weakened or killed versions of viruses, you become immune without getting sick.
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If You’ve Had COVID-19, Are You Immune?
Some countries want to issue “immunity passports” for people who have antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19, called the SARS-CoV-2 virus. People with these “passports” would be allowed to go back to work and travel because they’re supposedly immune to the virus.
But health experts don’t yet know whether we really do become immune to COVID-19 after we’re infected. And if we do become immune, we don’t know how long that might last.
Other types of coronaviruses appear to cause some immunity. Studies show that people are protected against the coronaviruses that cause the common cold for up to a year after an infection. And our bodies have antibodies against the SARS coronavirus for up to 4 years.
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