When researchers in Los Alamos published a study last month revealing the emergence of a mutant coronavirus strain, a finding buried deep inside alarmed Robert Gallo, one of the co-discoverers of a different virus.
The mutation of the coronavirus’s outer spikes could help the virus escape the grasp of otherwise neutralizing antibodies and “make individuals susceptible to a second infection,” the study warned.
“They saw recombinant forms, and those are scary,” Gallo, co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-founder and international scientific adviser of the Global Virus Network, said in an interview. “The structure of the spike has features reminiscent of a different virus’s spike protein.”
The ability of the novel coronavirus to mutate, and possibly to infect individuals with multiple strains at once, is the latest complicating factor in the scientific race to understand protective immunity to the pandemic disease.
Identifying that immunity — both by recovering from the disease and through producing a vaccine — will be the single most important scientific development over the course of the pandemic.
It would allow Americans the comfort of knowing that they are protected and businesses the confidence to bring employees back to work. It would provide local, state and federal governments with an efficient testing tool that could get the economy moving again.
But the world’s leading scientists working to solve it are throwing cold water on the prospect that antibody testing will be the tool that can achieve any of those goals anytime soon, saying a much longer timeframe for research is required.
It is a reality that has been aggressively challenged by lawmakers and Trump administration officials eager to rush out a vaccine within the year and deploy antibody testing as a barometer for workforce safety.
Scientists say that, with merely five months of data collected on the new virus, it is impossible to determine with high confidence whether those who have survived COVID-19 once are naturally protected from a second infection.
The best antibody tests available today are able to tell individuals whether they have been exposed to the virus — not whether the antibodies that were produced during their infection mean they are protected from getting ill from the virus again.
Scientists investigating the question of immunity have yet to determine the prevalence of antibodies that “neutralize” the virus from spreading within the body. They don’t yet know whether those antibodies will work in safeguarding against reinfection, nor how many would be required to guarantee protection. They cannot yet say whether virus mutations and multiple strain infections will allow the virus to circumvent those antibodies.
To answer these questions, they insist there is no substitute for extensive studies — the type of research that typically takes years. And only with that knowledge will they be able to declare that acquired immunity, or a vaccine, provides durable, long-term protection.
“There isn’t enough time. It’ll take the bulk of a year before we see a correlate for protection,” said Gallo. “There’s still more to the immune system than we understand — in terms of correlate of protection, it’s not always there.”