Worried About Fading COVID-19 Antibodies? Not So Fast.

6:11 minutes

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

As COVID-19 cases continue to set records, including nearly 90,000 new cases recorded Thursday alone, new research on the rapid decline of antibodies in recovering patients may look like even more bad news. But according to experts on the immune system, the findings, from the Imperial College of London’s REACT study, should be viewed with some skepticism in light of how antibody production in the body comes in waves—which may not have been accounted for in this work.

Yasmin Tayag of Medium’s OneZero explains more about measuring a complicated immune response. Plus why the Moon’s recent water discoveries is both old and new, and the agricultural potential of livestock “super daddies.”

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Segment Guests

Yasmin Tayag

Yasmin Tayag is a freelance science editor and writer based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about science issues on the ballot around the country. But first, the pandemic continues to escalate with cases rising in most states and a new nationwide record for daily cases– nearly 90,000 for the first time ever yesterday.

And as the virus spreads, a worrisome study of antibodies in people recovering from infection, suggesting that the protective antibodies our immune system generates may disappear in as few as three months. But as is often the case with the immune system, it may be more complicated than that.

So here to explain more is Yasmin Tayag, senior editor for OneZero and a writer for the Medium Coronavirus Blog. Welcome back, Yasmin.

YASMIN TAYAG: Hi, Ira. It’s good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Sort of a double whammy of bad news. That would be bad if our antibodies declined quicker than we had hoped for, right?

YASMIN TAYAG: It would be bad, but I’m choosing to view the new antibody study with a very hefty grain of salt. This was the REACT Study that came out from England, from scientists at Imperial College London. And it showed that the proportion of people who tested positive for antibodies dropped by almost 27% between June and September.

And it was a big study. It was about 365,000 people. One of the major concerns about this study is that it didn’t really control for the way antibodies are made in the body. Antibodies come in two waves. First, there’s the big spike that comes after infection, and that lasts for a few weeks.

And then there’s a second wave, and this comes weeks, maybe months, after the first wave. And this wave is led by cells called plasma cells that make fewer, but much stronger, antibodies. So there aren’t as many antibodies produced during this phase, which is why if you look at a chart over time there’s far fewer. But the plasma cells then make them last a lot longer even up to decades.

So the concern is that the REACT Study was catching that first dip in antibody production, which is expected. And there’s no real way of telling.

IRA FLATOW: So I think you’re basically saying this is not settled science yet.

YASMIN TAYAG: It is not settled science ye, like so much with the coronavirus There’s a lot left we need to learn about just what antibodies even mean for immunity because it’s tempting always to associate having antibodies with immunity. But that’s not necessarily the case. We don’t know that yet.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something really out of this world. We’re pretty sure there was water in the form of ice on the moon. And new research says, yes, and in more places than we’d expected. What’s going on there?

YASMIN TAYAG: Yes. There’s water in the Moon. That was the big headline this week, but we actually already knew that. The bigger news is that we have a better sense of where that water is on the moon and how it’s stored on the moon.

One of those paper shows that there’s water in the sunlit parts of the moon, which is surprising because for a long time we thought that water on the moon would be confined to the permanently shadowy areas, like craters or the poles. But apparently not so.

There is water on the sunlit side, and it’s housed in these tiny glass beads which makes them stable in the sunlight. And there isn’t that much of it. There is about a water bottle’s worth scattered over a cubic meter of soil that itself is scattered over this 230 square kilometer expanse that the scientists looked at.

But it’s there. And there also could be more.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Little glass beads– do we know how you get water into a little glass bead?

YASMIN TAYAG: That’s one of the big mysteries of this finding. Nobody’s really sure how the water got into these glass beads. But there’s some theories that it either came on a meteorite fully formed or that when the meteorite crashed into the Moon, they formed somehow.

But we really don’t know. That’s the new big question to answer.

IRA FLATOW: I’m going to move on to something. I gotta say, there’s no easy way to introduce this one. Tell us about the super daddies.

YASMIN TAYAG: Oh, yes. The super daddies. These are male animals– goats, pigs, and cows that are modified so that their testicles don’t produce that animal’s original sperm but sperm from a male with better and more productive genes.

So they’re also known as surrogate sires. And scientists at Washington State were recently able to make these super daddies for the first time using the gene editing tool CRISPR. The big breakthrough is that they were able to use CRISPR to make males sterile.

And making super daddies is the two-step process. First, you need sterile males, and then you inject stem cells with the beneficial genes into their testicles.

IRA FLATOW: When you say super daddy does that mean that there are more offspring, or what? What makes a definition of a super daddy?

YASMIN TAYAG: Well, what makes these daddies so super is that they could help improve the genetics of livestock around the world. So in many parts of the world, especially the developing world, livestock just isn’t as productive. If you could introduce genes for more meat and milk and eggs into those populations, then it could be a huge benefit for the farmers that rely on them.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that is a nice way to round up your news today after we started out with such disheartening news. Something hopeful. Thank you–

YASMIN TAYAG: No problem.

IRA FLATOW: –for taking time to be with us today, Yasmin.

YASMIN TAYAG: I’m so happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Yasmin Tayag, senior editor for OneZero and a writer for the Medium Coronavirus Blog.

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