'Antibodies are not the be-all end-all' of COVID-19 immunity: medical expert

Having a high level of antibodies does not necessarily protect a person from contracting COVID-19 or severe disease.
Having a high level of antibodies does not necessarily protect a person from contracting COVID-19 or severe disease. Photo credit Getty Images
By , KCBS Radio

While attention has been focused on vaccinations and the variants, people are still interested in antibodies, and how the varying levels of antibodies can affect immunity.

"We see more people curious about antibody tests," said Dr. Alan Wells, the medical director of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Clinical Laboratories and a professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine on "Ask an Expert" with KCBS Radio’s Holly Quan and Dan Mitchinson.

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The curiosity stems from people wanting to know if their immunity has changed after contracting COVID-19 or getting the vaccine, he said, and whether or not they should get a booster shot.

But while studying antibodies can be extremely valuable to understanding the pandemic from a medical point of view, it’s "not of great value to an individual," he said.

"Antibodies are not the be-all end-all," he said.

These tests don't necessarily take into account parameters, such as a person's overall health, either current, before infection or post-infection, said Wells. Having a high level of antibodies does not necessarily protect a person from contracting COVID-19 or severe disease, especially if that person has any underlying health conditions that limit their immune reserve.

"Antibodies alone, except at very very high levels, will not protect you from COVID-19," he said. "They're your first line of defense but then you have to reactivate your immune system to fight it off."

Someone with a robust immune system with low levels of antibodies is still highly protected against the virus.

It doesn't just boil down to having an underlying health condition, it also depends on how responsive a person’s immune system is. "For most of us, outside from the elderly, have a good enough reserve in our immune system without these underlying conditions," he said. Which is why those who do get COVID-19 that are on the younger side are typically able to recover.

When vaccinated, memory cells and other cells are activated, "educated" and are essentially on call to respond to infection, said Wells.

For those with underlying conditions that prevent their body from generating antibodies at all, health officials have been developing a treatment using monoclonal antibodies, which are artificial antibodies that help replicate the immune system's response to fight off viruses.

The FDA is currently considering authorizing using this treatment in shot form to help protect those whose immune system can't fight off COVID-19 on its own, said Wells.

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