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Can you become immune to the coronavirus? What we do and don't know

A doctor answers our questions.

Clinical test in immunology lab

No, a positive antibody test doesn't mean you're immune.

Karen Ducey/Getty Images
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep across the globe, researchers worldwide are looking for a way to control the virus. One key development we'll need to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus is herd immunity, which is when a high percentage of people in a given community are immune against the disease. Herd immunity is the best way to prevent contagious diseases from circulating throughout a population because it slows down or eliminates the spread of the virus from person to person.

But the concept of herd immunity raises questions about coronavirus immunity in general -- can you even be immune to the novel coronavirus? How would you know? Can you test for immunity

I spoke with Dr. Joseph Vinetz, an expert in infectious diseases at Yale Medicine, the clinical practice of the Yale School of Medicine. I wanted to get a better idea of the current scientific knowledge surrounding these important questions. While the situation is changing rapidly, here's what we currently know about whether you can develop immunity to SARS-CoV-2

Can I be immune to the novel coronavirus?

Vinetz says immunity means that you're "resistant to infection." While we have a pretty good understanding of what immunity is generally, scientists still don't know if you can become immune to the novel coronavirus yet. 

So far, we've been able to test for antibodies that can indicate a past exposure to the novel coronavirus. But, testing positive for antibodies just means you've had an immune response to the virus, not that you're necessarily immune. A positive antibody test has meant immunity for other diseases in the past, but the World Health Organization has warned that scientists don't know if this finding applies to SARS-CoV-2.

Long story short, the answer to this question is a soft maybe -- an answer you should get used to when inquiring about coronavirus immunity and cures. While scientists are working around the clock to learn more about this virus, we still don't have many definitive answers.

Is there a coronavirus immunity test?

There are a lot of "coronavirus tests" floating around, and most of them test for different things. The one that's relevant to coronavirus immunity is called an antibody test, and it indicates whether you've ever had COVID-19. Note that antibody tests don't tell you if you currently have the disease or if you've recovered.

Right now the only way to get an antibody test is by asking your doctor or another licensed healthcare provider to order lab work for you. But starting April 27, you can get an FDA-authorized coronavirus antibody test at a LabCorp testing facility or doctors' offices and health care facilities staffed with a LabCorp technician. You'll still need a doctor's order to get one of these tests. 

If scientists discover that a positive antibody test guarantees that you're immune to the virus, widespread testing would be the way to find out who has immunity. So, while we wait for more information, there's not currently a guaranteed way to determine whether or not you're immune to SARS-CoV-2.

If I recover from the coronavirus, am I immune?

"We don't know that someone [who has had coronavirus and recovered] is resistant to a new infection, or if they have protection how long that protection may last, or if you could carry it [the virus] for some time [after recovery]," says Vinetz. He acknowledges that he has a lot of "I don't knows" -- but that this is representative of the scientific community's current knowledge.

Current observations suggest that people who recover from COVID-19 are resistant to further infections, but this isn't a surefire indication that recovery means immunity. Plus, being immune after you recover doesn't guarantee immunity forever -- it could be a temporary status.

To throw another wrench into the discussion, the novel coronavirus seems to be mutating (albeit slowly). If you do happen to recover from COVID-19, this wouldn't necessarily mean that you're resistant to a new strain of the virus.

However, Vinetz has good news on this front: he tells me that we have no evidence to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 is mutating in a way to change its ability to evade our immune system. So, while the virus is changing, it's not changing in a way that makes it better at getting past our bodily defenses. Hopefully this means that if recovery from COVID-19 means immunity from the novel coronavirus, it'll also mean immunity from strains that develop in the near future.

If I'm immune to coronavirus, can I still be a carrier?

Let's say hypothetically that you did find a way to know for certain you're immune to infection from the novel coronavirus -- you still wouldn't necessarily know that you're incapable of passing the virus to others.

Again, Vinetz tells me that the answer to this question is "probably not," but that we just don't know yet. Hypothetically, if we find a way to accurately test for immunity, there's a chance that people may still be able to spread the virus even when they're immune. So, we shouldn't necessarily hold out for herd immunity as a panacea to the pandemic -- it's only one piece of the puzzle.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.