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Immunity to coronavirus may be far more widespread than thought

If some of the population have a degree of resistance thanks to previous infection with other coronaviruses then the numbers change

May 30, 2020

12:08 PM

30 May 2020

12:08 PM

Two weeks ago I wrote here about a study by the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California, which found that between 40 and 60 percent of people who had never been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 — the virus which causes COVID-19 — nevertheless seemed to develop an immune response to the disease in their T Cells. They appeared to have a cross-reactive immunity which had been gained through exposure to other coronaviruses — those which cause the common cold.

Now comes another study providing more evidence of the same phenomenon from a team at the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. Nine of 18 patients they studied showed an immune reaction in their T cells to a protein in SARS-CoV-2, in spite of never having been exposed to the virus.

The team also found that survivors of Sars — the novel coronavirus disease which had an outbreak in 2002/03 and then largely disappeared — possess a ‘robust’ cross-reactive immune response to SARS-CoV-2.


The usual caveats apply. This is a study yet to be peer-reviewed and it involved only a small number of individuals, but it does raise interesting questions over COVID-19. There has been a widespread assumption that no-one has any immunity to SARS-CoV-2, and that unless suppressed by social distancing or by a vaccine it will go on to infect the majority of the population. The British government’s response to COVID-19, as well as the Imperial College modeling which has proved so influential on it, has worked on the assumption that 80 percent of the population could go on to become infected. But if some of the population have a degree of resistance thanks to previous infection with other coronaviruses then the numbers change. We might not need 60 percent of the population to become infected to build up herd immunity, but a far lower figure.

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Real-world evidence has already questioned the assumption that most of us would become infected were the disease allowed to run its course. In the accidental experiment of the Diamond Princess — a close community where the infection was allowed to spread unchecked for two weeks in January, and everyone was eventually tested — only 17 percent of passengers and crew became infected.

Even if cross-reaction from other coronaviruses does not provide full immunity, it might explain why many people suffer only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. According to an ONS study of 19,000 people in Britain published last week, 79 percent of people who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 showed no symptoms up until the day they were tested.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.


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