Social media users misrepresent Washington University study on COVID-19 immunity

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CLAIM: Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis released data showing that if you have had COVID-19, even a mild case, you are likely protected from the virus for life.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The researchers found that people who have recovered from COVID-19 have bone marrow cells that can create antibodies for decades, but that doesn’t mean those individuals will be immune to new variants of the virus. For example, many people who were infected with the original strain of COVID-19 have been reinfected with the omicron variant.

THE FACTS: As the highly contagious omicron variant quickly became the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S. this week, a misleading article and several social media posts falsely claimed that people who have had COVID-19 before are immune from it and all future variants.

“If you’ve had COVID-19, even a mild case, major congratulations to you as you’ve more than likely got long-term immunity, according to a team of researchers from Washington University School of Medicine,” read an article published Tuesday on the news site The Epoch Times. “In fact, you’re likely to be immune for life, as is the case with recovery from many infectious agents — once you’ve had the disease and recovered, you’re immune, most likely for life.”

“BREAKING REPORT: Washington University School of Medicine RELEASES DATA claiming If You’ve Had COVID You’re Likely PROTECTED FOR LIFE…” read a tweet shared more than 14,000 times.

However, these posts misrepresent the research they cite — a study published in May in the journal Nature — according to study co-author Dr. Ali Ellebedy, who teaches pathology and immunology at Washington University’s medical school.

The study examined the blood and bone marrow of people who had experienced mild COVID-19 infections and found long-lived antibody-producing cells, evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 would likely create antibodies against it for a long time.

“Our study does NOT show nor claim that people recovering from mild SARS-CoV-2 infection are protected for life,” Ellebedy said in an email. “Epidemiological data clearly show that people recovered from earlier infection can be infected especially with emerging variants of concerns like Delta and Omicron.”

Ellebedy explained that having detectable antibody response for a lifetime doesn’t necessarily mean being protected from the virus for a lifetime.

“Not all antibodies are protective especially if the virus they are raised against is constantly changing,” Ellebedy said.

A prior infection doesn’t seem to offer much protection against an omicron infection although, like with vaccination, it may reduce the chances of severe illness.

Scientists in South Africa and Britain have found that reinfections among people who have battled COVID-19 appear more likely with omicron than with earlier mutants of the virus, including delta.

The widely shared false article was written by Dr. Joseph Mercola, a Florida osteopath who has previously spread COVID-19 misinformation online. It has appeared online on other websites for months, at least as early as July.

Neither The Epoch Times nor Mercola responded to emailed requests for comment.

By ALI SWENSON, Associated Press

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