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COVID-19 and Immunity

There are also preliminary hints that some people might have a degree of preexisting immunity against the new coronavirus. Four independent groups of scientists—based in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore—have now found that 20 to 50 percent of people who were never exposed to SARS-CoV-2 nonetheless have significant numbers of T-cells that can recognize it. These “cross-reactive” cells likely emerged when their owners were infected by other, related coronaviruses, including the four mild ones that cause a third of common colds, and the many that infect other animals.

But Farber cautions that having these cross-reactive T-cells “tells you absolutely nothing about protection.” It’s intuitive to think they would be protective, but immunology is where intuition goes to die. The T-cells might do nothing. There’s an outside chance that they could predispose people to more severe disease. We can’t know for sure without recruiting lots of volunteers, checking their T-cell levels, and following them over a long period of time to see who gets infected—and how badly.

Even if the cross-reactive cells are beneficial, remember that T-cells act by blowing up infected cells. As such, they’re unlikely to stop people from getting infected in the first place, but might reduce the severity of those infections. Could this help to explain why, politics aside, some countries had an easier time with COVID-19 than others? Could it explain why some people incur only mild symptoms? “You can go pretty crazy pretty quickly with the speculations,” says Crotty, who co-led one of the studies that identified these cross-reactive cells. “A lot of people have latched onto this and said it could explain everything. Yes, it could! Or it could explain nothing. It’s a really frustrating situation to be in.”

“I wish it wasn’t,” he adds, “but the immune system is really complicated.

– Ed Yong, “Immunology is Where Intuition Goes to Die”