If you don't speak the language of immunology, a lot of the talk these days won't make a lot of sense. How does the body fight off a virus? How is a vaccine made? These questions have long, complicated answers. In this post I want to teach you the basic outline of the answers, even if we don't go into all the terminology and details.
One word you're going to hear a lot about is ANTIBODIES. Antibodies are, for the most part, a good thing. Antibodies are what you have if you have gotten sick and managed to fight off the infection.
But how do you get them?
When you first get an infection, something has invaded your body. It could be a virus or a bacteria or a cancer cell that won't stop multiplying. The first step in fighting off such an invader is to recognize it. We have immune cells who are always on patrol for invaders. The take samples of antigens from the invader's surface and deliver them to headquarters (a lymph node). At headquarters there are cells that design and manufacture antibodies that match those antigens. Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that stick to the antigens on the invader cells and mark them for destruction.
After the invader antigens are marked, a different set of immune cells charges out and kills them. This is when you start getting better from your illness. Unfortunately the process of noticing the invader, delivering the antigen sample to HQ, designing and making the antibodies, tagging the invader cells and killing them takes about a week. It's not fast.
When your body has never fought off a certain invader before, your immune system is said to be "naive" about it. Once you have been exposed and are making antibodies, you are said to have "immunity".
This is why vaccines are so useful. A vaccine is basically a sample of antigen injected into your system to jump-start the process of recognition, delivery, and antibody-making. If you've had the vaccine for a particular kind of invader, then your body already has the antibody designed and a few of them are already made. This cuts days off of your response time to that infection. The faster you can mark the invader with antibodies and send in the troops to destroy it, the less time it has to grow in your body and make you badly sick.
When it comes to COVID-19, we had doubts about humans making good antibodies to it, because we don't seem to develop antibodies to the other coronaviruses that cause the common cold. Without developing antibodies, we don't have immunity. We can get the common cold over and over again, and it can be just as bad as it was the last time.
But the GOOD NEWS is in, and that is that people who've had COVID-19 are making antibodies to it! That means that we will be able to make a vaccine, and that the vaccine will work. This study from China, posted today (3/26/2020), says they found 206 different antibodies to COVID-19 in the immune cells of patients that survived it. Not only are there 206 antibodies detected so far, but they stick really well to the virus. Good news indeed!
The next step after testing people for the virus is to test them for the antibodies. Some of us have already had it. Wouldn't it be great to know if you've had it yet? If you knew that your immune system had already beat this virus and was ready to beat it again, you could go work in a hospital with sick people and not worry about getting sick.
It's true, we don't know how long immunity will last after exposure and antibody response, but we will learn that in the next year or two. In the meanwhile I am encouraged that research is finding good antibodies that can be used for a vaccine. Hope is on the Horizon.