Vaccinations are the best option to help develop immunity against the coronavirus. In addition, the hope is that people who've been exposed to COVID-19 also develop an immunity to it. When you have immunity, your body can recognize and fight off the virus.
People who've had COVID-19 can get sick again and infect other people. The incidence of reinfection has been relatively low.
Still, early data suggests that the omicron variant is more likely to reinfect someone than the previous dominant COVID strain, the delta variant. Also, one study suggests that you can get reinfected with COVID in 3 months or less if you’re unvaccinated. The researchers who did the study think reinfections will become more and more common as immunity wears off and new variants emerge.
Because many people who have COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms, antibody tests may be the best way to find out how far the coronavirus has spread. These blood tests can show who's been exposed to the virus and who hasn't.
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.
If You've Had COVID-19, Are You Immune?
COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. In addition, there are different strains. Health experts don't know whether we really become immune to COVID-19 after we're infected. And if we do have immunity, we don't know how long it might last. There have been reports of reinfections. Some of them involving the same strains.
Previously known types of coronaviruses appear to trigger 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 virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) for up to 4 years.
Most people who've recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies against the virus. But there's no evidence that this will protect them if they're exposed to it again.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) studied a group of people who had recovered from COVID-19 and found significant immunity responses in the majority of those participating. While their levels remained fairly stable over time, they did decline modestly at 6 to 8 months after infection.
Early on, some researchers thought the antibodies in convalescent plasma (the liquid part of blood) from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 might help people who are sick with the disease. But the World Health Organization now advises against it. Researchers say convalescent plasma doesn’t improve survival or lessen the need for a ventilator.
Could Herd Immunity Protect Us?
Herd immunity happens when a large part of the population -- the herd -- is immune to a virus. This can happen either because these people got vaccinated or had already been infected. Herd immunity makes it harder for a virus to spread. So even those who haven't been sick or vaccinated have some protection.
The more contagious a virus is, the more people need to be immune for herd immunity to kick in. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is so contagious that experts estimate between 80% and 90% of people in a community will need to be immune to have herd protection. Having vaccines should help eventually achieve that goal.
How Do We Test for Immunity?
Antibody tests, also called serology tests, measure antibodies to coronavirus in the blood. If you have antibodies, it means you've been exposed to the virus and your immune system has made antibodies against it. Antibody tests are different from the tests doctors use to check for the virus itself.
Because COVID-19 is so new, there hasn't been much time for scientists to check the accuracy of antibody tests. They could have false-positive results. That's when someone tests positive for antibodies but hasn't really developed them.
Testing for antibodies too soon after an illness can also cause false results. It takes 5-10 days after you get infected to develop antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Antibody tests could give people a false sense of security. They might go back to work and start to travel again when they could still catch or spread the virus. And because people can pass COVID-19 to others without showing symptoms, false positive results could lead to more outbreaks of the virus.