Friday, February 26, 2021

Tracking COVID19 reinfection - with help from Elon Musk

On 15 February, 2021, the paper Discrete SARS-CoV-2 antibody titers track with functional humoral stability was accepted for publication by the prestigious journal Nature — interesting not only for being a large-cohort study on COVID-19 reinfection, but for the presence of one of its coauthors: Elon Reeve Musk.  Elon is listed as one of the co-authors on a paper concerning the tracking of antibodies in people. Antibodies serve as biomarkers of infection. If sustained they can confer long-term immunity. 

For most clinically approved vaccines, binding antibody titers only serve as a surrogate of protection. Instead, the ability of vaccine induced antibodies to neutralize or mediate impact is the main way they confer protection. While evidence points to persistent antibody responses among SARS-CoV-2 infected individuals, cases of re-infection have begun to emerge, calling the protective nature of humoral immunity against this highly infectious pathogen into question. Using community-based surveillance, the study aimed to define the relationship between titers and functional antibody activity to SARS-CoV-2 over time.

Apparently, Musk — concerned in April 2020 with maintaining the schedule for the SpaceX crewed launch in May and wanting to make sure that an outbreak wouldn't set back plans — contacted academic researchers and worked with them to set up an antibody testing research programme. Over 4,000 SpaceX employees volunteered and were provided with periodic free testing at work to look for infection and monitor previously-infected people for reinfection. The programme gave SpaceX an advance heads up about upcoming threats, such as the growing wave in Texas in June, and continues to this day, with a new focus on mutant COVID strains.

The primary results of the study were that past infection provides a strong, although not perfect, barrier to reinfection. The level of antibodies strongly indicate the level of risk of reinfection, which promotes a positive outlook for vaccines, as they tend to result in much higher antibody levels than infection.

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