Jan. 5, 2022 -- COVID-19 infections may leave behind antibodies that turn on a person and attack their tissues and organs months after recovery, even if they had few or no symptoms in the first place, according to a study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine.
People infected with a virus produce antibodies that fight off foreign substances and disease.
Researchers have known for more than a year that severe cases of COVID-19 may result in a person developing “autoantibodies” -- weapons of the immune system that go rogue and launch an attack against the body’s own tissues.
Cedars-Sinai scientists showed the same thing can happen in less serious cases of COVID -- and as long as six months after recovery, a Cedars-Sinai news release said.
“These findings help to explain what makes COVID-19 an especially unique disease,” Justyna Fert-Bober, a research scientist at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai and co-senior author of the study, said in the news release.
“These patterns of immune dysregulation could be underlying the different types of persistent symptoms we see in people who go on to develop the condition now referred to as long COVID-19.”
The researchers took blood samples from 177 unvaccinated people who were infected with COVID and compared them with samples from healthy people taken before the pandemic. All the infected people had elevated levels of autoantibodies, according to the study.
“We found signals of autoantibody activity that are usually linked to chronic inflammation and injury involving specific organ systems and tissues such as the joints, skin, and nervous system,” said Susan Cheng, M.D., director of the Institute for Research on Healthy Aging in the Department of Cardiology at the Smidt Heart Institute and co-senior author of the study.
Researchers found more of the elevated autoantibody levels in men than women – a surprise because some of the autoantibodies are most often found in autoimmune diseases that affect women more than men.
“On the one hand, this finding is paradoxical given that autoimmune conditions are usually more common in females,” Fert-Bober said. “On the other hand, it is also somewhat expected given all that we know about males being more vulnerable to the most severe forms of COVID-19.”
The research teams wants to do more studies to see if these types of autoantibodies are found in people with long COVID and also in vaccinated people who develop breakthrough cases.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date of publication. It was published Jan. 5, 2022, not Jan. 5, 2021.