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Coronavirus antibodies disappear in some patients, Spanish study finds

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  • A major new study in one of Europe’s worst affected countries for the coronavirus finds no evidence of widespread immunity to the virus developing.
  • Just 5% of Spaniards were detected to have antibodies to the virus.
  • 14% of people who previously tested positive for antibodies, tested negative just weeks later.
  • The study suggests people who experience mild symptoms do not have long-lasting protection.
  • “Immunity can be incomplete, it can be transitory, it can last for just a short time and then disappear,” Raquel Yotti, director of Spain’s Carlos III Health Institute, said.
  • Another scientist involved said: “In light of these findings, any proposed approach to achieve herd immunity through natural infection is not only highly unethical, but also unachievable.”
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Population-wide immunity to the coronavirus could be “unachievable” with antibodies to the virus disappearing after just a few weeks in some patients, according to a major new Spanish study.

The Spanish government teamed up with some of the country’s leading epidemiologists to discover what percentage of the population had developed antibodies that could potentially provide immunity from the coronavirus.

The study found that just five per cent of those tested across the country maintained antibodies to the virus, in findings published by medical journal The Lancet.

The study also found that 14% of individuals who had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in the first round of testing, no longer tested positive in subsequent tests carried out weeks later.

“Immunity can be incomplete, it can be transitory, it can last for just a short time and then disappear,” Raquel Yotti, director of Spain’s Carlos III Health Institute, who helped conduct the study said. 

Other researchers said the study confirmed findings elsewhere that immunity to the virus may not be long-lasting in people who only develop mild, or no symptoms.

“No symptoms suggests a mild infection, which never really gets the immune system going well enough to generate immunological ‘memory’.” Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, said.

Jones added: “Anyone who tests positive by antibody test should not assume they are protected. They may be, but it is not clear.”

Proponents of so-called herd immunity argue that allowing around 60% or more of the population to catch the virus will prevent a future outbreak.

However, the study found that despite Spain being one of the worst-affected countries by COVID-19, “prevalence estimates remain low and are clearly insufficient to provide herd immunity.” Over 28,000 people in Spain have died after catching the coronavirus.

The study’s lead author, Marina Pollán, told CNN: “Some experts have computed that around 60% of seroprevalence might mean herd immunity. But we are very far from achieving that number.”

Two other scientists involved in the study, Isabella Eckerle and Benjamin Meyer, said the Spanish study, along with similar studies elsewhere in the world like in the US and China, showed that herd immunity could not be achieved.

The “key finding” is that “most of the population appears to have remained unexposed” to the coronavirus, “even in areas with widespread virus circulation,” Eckerle and Meyer said in a commentary on the new research.

Eckerle heads the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases, while Meyer is a virologist at the University of Geneva.

They said: “In light of these findings, any proposed approach to achieve herd immunity through natural infection is not only highly unethical, but also unachievable.”

As found in antibody studies elsewhere in the world, Spain’s most densely-populated areas — capital Madrid and city Barcelona — had the highest levels of antibody prevelence. It was over 10% in Madrid and 7% in Barcelona.

Evidence against herd immunity is piling up

Stefan Lofven

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images


The study, which tested over 61,000 people in Spain, is the latest to pour cold water over the idea of herd immunity.

A study published in May suggested that just 7.3% of people in Swedish capital Stockholm had developed coronavirus antibodies, despite Sweden’s government adopting a novel and contentious strategy of not imposing a strict lockdown.

Sweden’s prime minister Stefan Lofven last week ordered an inquiry into the country’s handling of the virus, telling reporters “we have thousands of dead” and “now the question is how Sweden should change, not if.”

Unlike most European countries, Sweden did not implement strict, wholesale lockdown measures in response to the pandemic. Instead, it largely allowed businesses and hospitality to remain open and students to attend school.

In May, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, justified this response by saying that countries that imposed strict lockdowns would likely suffer large second waves later in the year, whereas Sweden’s would be smaller.

However, weeks later Sweden is among the worst-affected countries in the world in terms of deaths per capita, with nearly five-and-a-half thousand people dead, while failing to stimulate sufficient antibodies in the community to prevent a second wave.

Boris Johnson’s UK government denies allegations that it initially decided to pursue a strategy of herd immunity before being warned that it would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

An Italian health minister last month claimed that Prime Minister Johnson revealed his intention to pursue herd immunity in a phone call with Italian Prime Minister on March 13, at the offset of the UK’s pandemic.

On the same day, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said he believed the UK would be able to achieve herd immunity.

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