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Can you build ‘super-immunity’ to Covid?

New study examining impact of virus on the double-vaccinated produces surprising result

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 20 January 2022 11:03
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Omicron: What we know about the new Covid-19 variant

Since its discovery in southern Africa in November, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread across the globe, bringing with it fresh fear, new social restrictions and another chaotic and anxious winter.

The new strain drove soaring infection rates over Christmas and the New Year, with the UK hitting a pandemic high of 218,724 cases in one day on 4 January, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHA).

However, the infection rate has since halved, allowing British prime minister Boris Johnson to drop the light-touch social restrictions he introduced in England during the first week of December.

Much remains unknown about the highly-transmissible variant at this early stage in its development, with more clinical data still needed to determine precisely how it attacks and how it responds to our existing suite of vaccines, which have worked so well against previous strains and helped to keep hospitalisations and deaths low.

Early studies have suggested that a booster jab is crucial to holding off Omicron - with the UKHA saying a booster is 65-75 per cent effective against symptomatic infection and 89 per cent effective in preventing hospitalisation - which is why governments around the world have been encouraging their citizens to queue around the block for a third shot as a matter of urgency in recent weeks.

Just prior to Christmas, scientists reported that a booster shot provoked a response from the body’s immune system to the virus within two-to-three days, not weeks, as has previously been thought, swiftly activating the T and B memory cells responsible for hunting down infection and producing antibodies.

“The immunity generated after a booster jab will rise much quicker than the first immune response,” commented Gary McLean, a professor in molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University.

Another interesting new study at Oregon Health & Science University has since indicated that it might indeed be possible to develop “super-immunity” against Omicron in the case of sufferers contracting Covid-19 having had two doses of one of the vaccines.

The study examined the blood of 26 people who had experienced so-called “breakthrough” infections of Covid after being double-vaccinated and found that they developed antibodies that were as much as 1,000 per cent more effective and abundant, therein creating a form of super-immunity, according to the researchers.

While the vaccines are obviously intended to stop recipients from catching Covid in the first place, it is nevertheless still possible for the more pernicious strains like Delta and Omicron to slip past the body’s defences.

In the cases of the double-jabbed people examined as part of the study, that occurrence proved to be surprisingly beneficial by bolstering the robustness of their immune systems.

“You can’t get a better immune response than this,” said the study’s senior author, Fikadu Tafesse, an assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the university’s School of Medicine.

“These vaccines are very effective against severe disease. Our study suggests that individuals who are vaccinated and then exposed to a breakthrough infection have super-immunity.”

His colleague Marcel Curlin was even more optimistic about the study’s ramifications, commenting: “I think this speaks to an eventual end game.

“It doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the pandemic, but it points to where we’re likely to land: once you’re vaccinated and then exposed to the virus, you’re probably going to be reasonably well protected from future variants.

“Our study implies that the long-term outcome is going to be a tapering-off of the severity of the worldwide epidemic.”

The researchers have not yet had an opportunity to test their findings against Omicron specifically but say that they underline the importance of getting vaccinated to ensure your body has a “foundation of protection” against the virus.

Their findings have, however, subsequently been further validated by research from Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Tokyo-based immunologists likewise found that a vaccination followed by a breakthrough Covid infection provided greater protection - and that the effect was even more pronounced if the positive test came several months after the jab was administered, rather than much sooner.

This is because when a person becomes infected months after being jabbed, the responding antibodies are derived from a new and improved batch made by those cells that carry the memory of the pathogen.

When their body encounters the pathogen for a second time (after the initial encounter through vaccination), those same memory cells return to frontline duty with an opportunity to refine the antibodies, potentially providing stronger protection against future infections.

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