On the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring SARS-CoV-2 a global pandemic, it's hard to believe that so much and yet so little time has passed. The past twelve months seem to have dragged by, with each day feeling like an eternity, yet also it feels as though it has flashed by in a blur.
Nearly everyone I've spoken with, from recent acquaintances to my closest friends and family, have reported feeling the same odd sense of disconnectedness, which I've taken to calling "pandemic relativity." Just this week, Ellen Cushing published a piece in The Atlantic about the effects of "late-stage pandemic" on memory and cognitive function. Perhaps, thanks to twelve months of living this way, we have all found it that much more difficult to distill the key lessons that will allow us to emerge from the relentless, disconnected grind of our current reality, return to some semblance of normalcy, and take the decisive steps needed to ensure the mistakes of this pandemic are not repeated in the next one.
As a virologist who studies SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging viruses, and who sometimes writes and publicly comments on my thoughts, I've been asked frequently about what we've learned as we approach a year of living in suspension. While I always come up with an answer, the truth is similar to my perception of time: we've learned a lot, but at the same time, that's only served to highlight how much we still don't know. We have uncovered and clarified many scientific truths, but also revealed the limits of our scientific knowledge.
The Most Important Lessons Learned
The dangers of false dichotomies.
From the early days, we have been guilty of binary thinking, and this has touched nearly every aspect of the pandemic. The following statements are not true, but the narratives are all too common: The only outcomes of COVID-19 are full recovery or death. Masks either work perfectly or they don't work at all. Transmission only occurs entirely by droplets or is entirely airborne. Children are either complete immune or they are equally as susceptible as adults. Vaccines either completely protect against infection and illness or they are completely useless. Any true student of biology can tell you that there are very rarely binary certainties that apply to every situation, but sensible public health advice can be rapidly derailed by discussing biological realities that exist on a continuum as if they are all categorically true or false.
It's a natural impulse to reduce complex systems to a choice of two options, and also to seek absolute certainty. A challenge for all scientists is how to communicate uncertainty when many people are understandably frustrated at this point and sick of hearing "we don't know." If we don't know now, when will we know? How much do we need to know to make good decisions? When will we get back to "normal"? In trying to simplify complex scientific concepts, we've made them hopelessly complicated. An important lesson going forward is that we should move away from black and white conversations about the emerging science and embrace the shades of gray, with all the nuance and uncertainty that entails.
Novel pandemic viruses can be controlled without a vaccine or effective antiviral therapeutics, and there is no one right way to do so.
Coronaviruses are very different from influenza.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the superficial similarities between SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses have inevitably led to comparisons: both are primarily respiratory viruses with some symptoms in common, both have a relatively low overall mortality rate, both are zoonotic viruses that spilled over into the human population from animals, both are enveloped viruses that use RNA, rather than DNA, as their genetic material.
But these similarities disguise the fact that these are two fundamentally different pathogens. They have very different biology at virtually every step of the viral replication cycle, or the process that a virus goes through when it infects a cell and transforms it into a virus factory. SARS-CoV-2 enters cells by interacting with a protein on cell surfaces called ACE-2, while influenza viruses interact with a sugar molecule called sialic acid that "decorates" cell surface proteins. This means the viruses infect different types of cells in the respiratory tract and throughout the body. They also encode vastly different types of viral proteins meant to subvert and hijack the cells they infect: the genome of influenza virus is less than half the size of the genome of SARS-CoV-2, and encodes fewer than half as many viral proteins that can interact with the host cell.
As a result, these viruses each interact with host cells in unique ways and induce different responses to infection. The host response to infection is critically important for determining disease severity in both influenza and COVID-19, with the most severe disease associated with an uncontrolled inflammatory response that results in damaging the lungs and other affected tissues. Indeed, comparative studies have now shown that COVID-19 and influenza infection induce very different host response profiles in infected cells, leading to fundamentally different diseases. Our early reliance on pandemic response plans and public health strategies designed for influenza virus was a mistake, and this will be critical to preparedness and improved response plans going forward.
Transmission is situational.
Another way in which SARS-CoV-2 is very different from influenza is how it spreads through a population, which is relevant to how it is transmitted. Early on, many people focused on the fact that the basic reproduction number (R0) of SARS-CoV-2 was between 2 and 4, similar to the 1918 influenza pandemic. R0 describes the number of people that an infected person will transmit the virus to, but this is an average.
Another key measurement epidemiologists use to look at spread is dispersion, or patterns of transmission. If R0 is 2, and you have a population of 10 people, does that mean that all 10 people transmitted the virus to exactly 2 people? Or did 4 of the people each transmit to 5 people, with the other 6 of the 10 transmitting to nobody? In both situations, the average number of new infections is still 2, but the latter situation is described as overdispersion. While influenza is typically not very overdispersed, SARS-CoV-2 is heavily overdispersed. This is reflected in the high frequency of "superspreading events", where many people are infected at the same time.
Superspreading events are highly dependent on circumstances that need to align to create a conducive environment for transmission. SARS-CoV-2 is primarily transmitted by either inhalation of infectious aerosols (smaller respiratory particles suspended in the air) or direct contact with infectious droplets (larger respiratory particles that can be transferred from the body to the nose or mouth). This means that transmission is more likely to occur in situations with increased exposure risk. The risk is additive, with the likelihood of transmission being higher with more potential sources of virus (people from different households), higher respiratory particle emissions (lack of masks and/or shouting or singing), a physical environment that concentrates potentially infectious particles (an enclosed, poorly ventilated indoor space), close physical proximity (crowding), and increased exposure time.
We have seen repeatedly that when these conditions are met, such as in crowded bars or restaurants, gyms, cruise ships, buses, or weddings, superspreading can occur. The good news, however, is that identifying all these different risk factors has also allowed us to identify methods to mitigate transmission, and these are also additive: masks, physical distancing, avoiding enclosed spaces, limiting interactions with people outside your household, improving ventilation, and practicing good hand hygiene all reduce exposure risk.
Presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission are critical to controlling a pandemic.
Another critical early mistake was assuming that SARS-CoV-2 would be transmitted only by symptomatic people. This was an understandable assumption to make, as people infected with "classic" SARS-CoV reliably developed fevers and could be identified based on body temperature and symptom screening. However, by March 2020, it was apparent that symptom-based screening was inadequate. The symptoms of COVID-19 fall along a very broad spectrum, ranging from completely asymptomatic infection to lethal pneumonia, with everything from loss of taste and smell to "COVID toes" to diarrhea to kidney failure to strokes in between.
Furthermore, last spring several studies showed that viral loads in the nose and throat were highest at the time of symptom onset, suggesting that people were likely to be contagious before they would be aware that they were sick. This created a tremendous challenge that repeatedly thwarted efforts to control community transmission in many countries, including the U.S. Without sufficient testing and surveillance, and with prevalence too high to enable robust contact tracing, efforts to identify and quarantine exposed people were unsuccessful. While the percentage of cases resulting from silent asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission is still not precisely determined, it may account for nearly half of new infections and has been observed repeatedly. However, our policies have not caught up, and overeager reopening and blanket lifting of mask mandates often fail to account for contagious people who don't realize they are infected. Unfortunately, it's now also well-established that prematurely letting up on precautions can drive new surges in case numbers.
There's more than one way to stop a pandemic. While we've certainly seen examples of failed pandemic responses by looking at the U.S. and most of Western Europe, there have been a number of other countries that have very effectively controlled the pandemic within their borders. This hasn't been a one-size-fits-all approach, either. China infamously instituted a draconian lockdown in late January after the pandemic quickly spread from Wuhan to the rest of the country. A number of other countries, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, have implemented various combinations of policy measures (travel restrictions, lockdowns), epidemiological approaches (contact tracing, isolation and quarantine), data collection (testing capacity and surveillance), and mitigation measures (mask availability and mandates, exposure risk reduction education campaigns), that have effectively kept prevalence low and in some cases eliminated COVID-19 altogether. It shows that novel pandemic viruses can be controlled without a vaccine or effective antiviral therapeutics, and also that there is no one right way to do so.
We can develop safe, effective vaccines in record time.
Last March, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci estimated that a vaccine might be available in 12 to 18 months. At the time this was thought to be an extremely optimistic estimate, given that vaccines typically take years to design, develop, and test to ensure they are safe and effective. So how did we go from the drawing board to authorized vaccines, which so far appear to be very safe and effective, in less than a year? In part this is due to streamlining the clinical trial process, allowing previously sequential steps in the pipeline to occur simultaneously, such as phase 3 clinical trials and manufacturing.
The expedited trial process also built upon previous studies with the vaccine technologies, including extensive preclinical studies and clinical trials that tested mRNA (Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna) and adenovirus-vectored (Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca) vaccines against other viruses, including MERS-CoV, a cousin of SARS-CoV-2. Prior to the phase 3 clinical trials "reading out" (amassing enough data to enable a statistically robust appraisal of their safety and efficacy), our expectations were modest, hoping for 50 to 60% protection against COVID-19. Thus far, all the vaccines that have completed phase 3 trials have exceeded that expectation. While future vaccines will likely still take years to fully evaluate, we can apply the achievements of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines to make the regulatory process more efficient for other vaccines, as well as develop ways to further expedite the process in emergencies without compromising safety or effectiveness. A more efficient regulatory environment could improve access to other technologies, such as promising new tests and therapeutics, as well.
The Biggest Unknowns
While we have made extraordinary strides forward in better understanding SARS-CoV-2 and both the triumphs and the failures of the response to the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime, the lessons we've learned have highlighted the many questions that remain. We will be studying many aspects of the pandemic for decades. Long after SARS-CoV-2 is finished with humanity on a global scale, we will not be finished with it. Some of these remaining questions won't have easy answers, and in fact may not even be answerable. But it is critical to engage with these questions as we move into a post-pandemic future.
The origin of SARS-CoV-2.
This topic is as confusing and murky as it is contentious, proving to be as confounding to science as it is disruptive to geopolitics. Multiple hypotheses abound: SARS-CoV-2 emerged into the human population naturally, passing from an infected animal to an unlucky human in the wrong place at the wrong time in a process called zoonotic spillover. This natural origin hypothesis is considered the most likely, as this is overwhelmingly the most common path for novel viruses to emerge in the human population.
Tracing SARS-CoV-2 back to its source is critical for both understanding how this pandemic began and preventing the emergence of SARS-CoV-3, which almost certainly is circulating in wildlife along with a frighteningly large number of other potential pandemic pathogens.
However, the evidence supporting this hypothesis is scant, and limited to genetic analyses that don't indicate anything artificial or engineered about the SARS-CoV-2 genome, as well as some very small studies suggesting that people who live close to bat caves in southern China have antibodies to closely related viruses. Such uncertainty has led to several other hypotheses, including that the virus emerged from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, either through accident or design. While there is far more speculation than evidence affirming any laboratory origin hypothesis, neither can be definitively excluded and both should be fairly investigated. In addition, the Chinese government has suggested that SARS-CoV-2 was imported via frozen seafood from Europe or North America. This hypothesis strains credulity, given that the most closely related viruses have been identified in China and transmission by indirect contact (with contaminated objects, or fomites, is thought to be uncommon), but it still should be ruled out objectively.
About the only thing most experts agree on is that SARS-CoV-2 evolved from an ancestral betacoronavirus that likely was circulating in bats. However, because we have not yet found that ancestral virus in nature, we are left still looking. Sometimes origin investigations into zoonotic origins can take decades, since we live in a big world, with many wild animals carrying many different viruses at different times in their lives. Trying to find the immediate forbear of SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife is like seeking a very specific tiny needle in a planet-sized haystack that is also littered with other tiny needles.
To further complicate matters, there is the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 did not spill over from bats to humans directly, but stopped off in another species along the way. Intermediary species have been involved in the transmission of both SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, and we already know that SARS-CoV-2 can infect other animal species, including minks, dogs, and cats.
And if the science weren't complex enough, conducting any type of origin investigation, but particularly a rigorous independent investigation of lab origin theories, depends on other countries maintaining a productive diplomatic relationship with the Chinese government. That relationship erodes every time another piece is published outside China that treats laboratory origin as a foregone conclusion. Tracing SARS-CoV-2 back to its source is critical for both understanding how this pandemic began and preventing the emergence of SARS-CoV-3, which almost certainly is circulating in wildlife along with a frighteningly large number of other potential pandemic pathogens. But it won't be easy and we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility of a very long and arduous search for answers.
The long-term consequences of COVID-19.
While it is not clear how common "long COVID" is, one thing is certain: it has impacted a substantial number of COVID-19 survivors' lives. It remains unknown what predisposes a person to this outcome, now dubbed post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). Nor does anyone truly know how long it lasts, or even what the most common presentation of it looks like. Many patients have reported a diverse array of symptoms, some very severe, that have persisted for months.
PASC can range from recurring neurological problems to hair and tooth loss to permanent lung injury. Some people have reported relapsing pain and severe fatigue similar to myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome. Even more troubling, PASC can be severe in patients who reported having extremely mild acute COVID-19. Last month, the National Institutes of Health announced plans to study PASC in detail, but it may be some time before we know the cause (or causes) of PASC, much less how to treat it and ameliorate its impact on those suffering from it. But the potential for long-term debilitating illness persisting long after the resolution of acute SARS-CoV-2 infection suggests that even when the pandemic is behind us, public health will continue to struggle with the legacy of COVID-19.
Immune correlates of protection and durability.
While vaccine trials were designed to sacrifice little in the way of assessing short-term efficacy, they did not assess the length of time that protective immunity will last. This was because of the urgency of the situation, and allowed us to begin vaccinating as soon as we learned that the vaccines were safe and effective in the short term. Durability studies are one reason why normally vaccine trials can take over a decade, as unfortunately the only way to assess how long a vaccine lasts is to wait and see when protection begins to wane.
Furthermore, because the virus is novel and the technologies underlying the vaccine platforms are being used for the first time at population scale, we haven't yet defined correlates of protection for the vaccines. Correlates of protection are easily measurable features, such as antibody levels or cell counts, that can be used as surrogates for vaccine function. In other words, what we are missing is the knowledge of how many antibodies, or T-cells, does your immune system actually need to protect you from infection? We know that a high number is protective, but the question is how high.
Until we have enough data to define these correlates, we have to continue to follow trial participants and analyze observational studies of vaccinated individuals, which can be tedious as well as time-consuming. So it may be some time before we can advise people confidently about how long vaccine protection will last beyond a year or so, based on the duration of immune function in people who have recovered from natural SARS-CoV-2 infection. The good news is that protective immune responses can be easily restored with a booster shot, but that will present major logistical challenges if needed while global immunization efforts are still underway.
What price will we pay for nationalizing vaccine responses?
Finally, one of the biggest questions as we move into the post-pandemic future in the developed world is what the decision to respond nationally, rather than as a cooperative global community, will cost us in terms of truly ending the pandemic. Without question, in countries like the U.S., which will have enough vaccine doses in the next few months to vaccinate every American who wants one, the pandemic will end for most people's daily lives. But globally, the reality is very different. Many countries have yet to administer a single dose of any vaccine. While this may not seem relevant to people who do not intend to travel to those countries, it is relevant to every human being on earth. None of us are safe until all of us are safe.
Viruses infect their hosts regardless of what passport they carry. Pandemics, by definition, are global epidemics, and thus impact the global population. If people are vaccinated only in certain countries, SARS-CoV-2 can continue to circulate in populations with less immunization and fewer barriers to infection. As the U.S. today reaches this grim anniversary along with the rest of the world, we would do well to remember the lessons we've learned as we forge ahead with filling the remaining gaps in our knowledge.
Never has the prospect of "back to school" seemed so ominous as it does in 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases climb steadily in nearly every state, the prospect of in-person classes are filling students, parents, and faculty alike with a corresponding sense of dread.
The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue.
The decision to resume classes at primary, secondary, and collegiate levels is not one that should be regarded lightly, particularly as coronavirus cases skyrocket across the United States.
What should be a measured, data-driven discussion that weighs risks and benefits has been derailed by political talking points. President Trump has been steadily advocating for an unfettered return to the classroom, often through imperative "OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!" tweets. In July, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold funding from schools that did not reopen for full-time, in-person classes, despite not having the authority to do so. Like so many public health issues, opening schools in the midst of a generational pandemic has been politicized to the point that the question of whether it is safe to do so has been obscured and confounded. However, this question still deserves to be examined based on evidence.
What We Know About Kids and COVID-19
Some arguments for returning to in-person education have focused on the fact that children and young adults are less susceptible to severe disease. In some cases, people have stated that children cannot be infected, pointing to countries that have resumed in-person education with no associated outbreaks. However, those countries had extremely low community transmission and robust testing and surveillance.
The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue: children can be infected, they can become sick, and, in rare cases, they can die. Children can also transmit the virus to others, especially if they are in prolonged proximity to them. A Georgia sleepaway camp was the site of at least 260 cases among mostly children and teenagers, some as young as 6 years old. Children have been shown to shed infectious virus in their nasal secretions and have viral loads comparable to adults. Children can unquestionably be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and spread it to others.
The more data emerges, the more it appears that both primary and secondary schools and universities alike are conducive environments for super-spreading. Mitigating these risks depends heavily on individual schools' ability to enforce reduction measures. So far, the evidence demonstrates that in most cases, schools are unable to adequately protect students or staff. A school superintendent from a small district in Arizona recently described an outbreak that occurred among staff prior to in-person classes resuming. Schools that have opened so far have almost immediately reported new clusters of cases among students or staff.
This is because it is impossible to completely eliminate risk even with the most thoughtful mitigation measures when community transmission is high. Risk can be reduced, but the greater the likelihood that someone will be exposed in the community, the greater the risk they might pass the virus to others on campus or in the classroom.
There are still many unknowns about SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but some environments are known risks for virus transmission: enclosed spaces with crowds of people in close proximity over extended durations. Transmission is thought to occur predominantly through inhaled aerosols or droplets containing SARS-CoV-2, which are produced through common school activities such as breathing, speaking, or singing. Masks reduce but do not eliminate the production of these aerosols. Implementing universal mask-wearing and physical distancing guidelines will furthermore be extraordinarily challenging for very young children.
Smaller particle aerosols can remain suspended in the air and accumulate over time. In an enclosed space where people are gathering, such as a classroom, this renders risk mitigation measures such as physical distancing and masks ineffective. Many classrooms at all levels of education are not conducive to improving ventilation through low-cost measures such as opening windows, much less installing costly air filtration systems.
As a risk reduction measure, ventilation greatly depends on factors like window placement, window type, room size, room occupancy, building HVAC systems, and overall airflow. There isn't much hard data on the specific effects of ventilation on virus transmission, and the models that support ventilation rely on assumptions based on scant experimental evidence that doesn't account for virologic parameters.
There is also no data about how effective air filtration or UV systems would be for SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk reduction, so it's hard to say if this would result in a meaningful risk reduction or not. We don't have enough data outside of a hospital setting to support that ventilation and/or filtration would significantly reduce risk, and it's impractical (and most likely impossible in most schools) to implement hospital ventilation systems, which would likely require massive remodeling of existing HVAC infrastructure. In a close contact situation, the risk reduction might be minimal anyway since it's difficult to avoid exposure to respiratory aerosols and droplets a person is exhaling.
You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity.
Efforts to resume in-person education depend heavily on school health and safety plans, which often rely on self-reporting of symptoms due to insufficient testing capacity. Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, and furthermore, SARS-CoV-2 can be readily transmitted by pre-symptomatic individuals who may be unaware that they are sick, making testing an essential component of any such plan. Primary and secondary schools are faced with limited access to testing and no funds to support it. Even in institutions that include a testing component in their reopening plans, this is still too infrequent to support the full student body returning to campus.
Economic Conflicts of Interest
Rebecca Harrison, a PhD candidate at Cornell University serving on the campus reopening committee, is concerned that her institution's plan places too much faith in testing capacity and is over-reliant on untested models. Harrison says that, as a result, students are being implicitly encouraged to return to campus and "very little has been done to actively encourage students who are safe and able to stay home, to actually stay home."
Harrison also is concerned that her institution "presumably hopes to draw students back from the safety of their parents' basements to (re)join the residential campus experience ... and drive revenue." This is a legitimate concern. Some schools may be actively thwarting safety plans in place to protect students based on financial incentives. Student athletes at Colorado State have alleged that football coaches told them not to report COVID-19 symptoms and are manipulating contact tracing reports.
Public primary and secondary schools are not dependent on student athletics for revenue, but nonetheless are susceptible to state and federal policies that tie reopening to budgets. If schools are forced to make decisions based on a balance sheet, rather than the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff, they will implement health and safety plans that are inadequate. Schools will become ground zero for new clusters of cases.
Looking Ahead: When Will Schools Be Able to Open Again?
One crucial measure is the percent positivity rate in the local community, the number of positive tests based on all the tests that are done. Some states, like California, have implemented policies guiding the reopening of schools that depend in part on a local community's percent positivity rate falling under 8 percent, among other benchmarks including the rate of new daily cases. Currently, statewide, test positivity is below 7%, with an average of 3 new daily cases per 1000 people per day. However, the California department of health acknowledges that new cases per day are underreported. There are 6.3 million students in the California public school system, suggesting that at any given time, there could be nearly 20,000 students who might be contagious, without accounting for presymptomatic teachers and staff. In the classroom environment, just one of those positive cases could spread the virus to many people in one day despite masks, distancing, and ventilation.
You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity. Only with rapid identification and isolation of new cases, followed by contact tracing and quarantine, can we break chains of transmission and prevent further spread in the school and the larger community.
None of these safety concerns diminish the many harms associated with the sudden and haphazard way remote learning has been implemented. Online education has not been effective in many cases and is difficult to implement equitably. Young children, in particular, are deprived of the essential social and intellectual development they would normally get in a classroom with teachers and their peers. Parents of young children are equally unprepared and unable to provide full-time instruction. Our federal leadership's catastrophic failure to contain the pandemic like other countries has put us in this terrible position, where we must choose between learning or spreading a deadly pathogen.
Blame aside, parents, educators, and administrators must decide whether to resume in-person classes this fall. Those decisions should be based on evidence, not on politics or economics. The data clearly shows that community transmission is out of control throughout most of the country. Thus, we ignore the risk of school outbreaks at our peril.
[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: 5 Key Questions to Consider Before Sending Your Child Back to School.]
[Editor's Note: We asked experts from different specialties to weigh in on a timely Big Question: "How should immunity testing play a role in re-opening society?" Below, a virologist offers her perspective.]
With the advent of serology testing and increased emphasis on "re-opening" America, public health officials have begun considering whether or not people who have recovered from COVID-19 can safely re-enter the workplace.
"Immunity certificates cannot certify what is not known."
Conventional wisdom holds that people who have developed antibodies in response to infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are likely to be immune to reinfection.
For most acute viral infections, this is generally true. However, SARS-CoV-2 is a new pathogen, and there are currently many unanswered questions about immunity. Can recovered patients be reinfected or transmit the virus? Does symptom severity determine how protective responses will be after recovery? How long will protection last? Understanding these basic features is essential to phased re-opening of the government and economy for people who have recovered from COVID-19.
One mechanism that has been considered is issuing "immunity certificates" to individuals with antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. These certificates would verify that individuals have already recovered from COVID-19, and thus have antibodies in their blood that will protect them against reinfection, enabling them to safely return to work and participate in society. Although this sounds reasonable in theory, there are many practical reasons why this is not a wise policy decision to ease off restrictive stay-home orders and distancing practices.
Too Many Scientific Unknowns
Serology tests measure antibodies in the serum—the liquid component of blood, which is where the antibodies are located. In this case, serology tests measure antibodies that specifically bind to SARS-CoV-2 virus particles. Usually when a person is infected with a virus, they develop antibodies that can "recognize" that virus, so the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies indicates that a person has been previously exposed to the virus. Broad serology testing is critical to knowing how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, since testing capacity for the virus itself has been so low.
Tests for the virus measure amounts of SARS-CoV-2 RNA—the virus's genetic material—directly, and thus will not detect the virus once a person has recovered. Thus, the majority of people who were not severely ill and did not require hospitalization, or did not have direct contact with a confirmed case, will not test positive for the virus weeks after they have recovered and can only determine if they had COVID-19 by testing for antibodies.
In most cases, for most pathogens, antibodies are also neutralizing, meaning they bind to the virus and render it incapable of infecting cells, and this protects against future infections. Immunity certificates are based on the assumption that people with antibodies specific for SARS-CoV-2 will be protected against reinfection. The problem is that we've only known that SARS-CoV-2 existed for a little over four months. Although studies so far indicate that most (but not all) patients with confirmed COVID-19 cases develop antibodies, we don't know the extent to which antibodies are protective against reinfection, or how long that protection will last. Immunity certificates cannot certify what is not known.
The limited data so far is encouraging with regard to protective immunity. Most of the patient sera tested for antibodies show reasonable titers of IgG, the type of antibodies most likely to be neutralizing. Furthermore, studies have shown that these IgG antibodies are capable of neutralizing surrogate viruses as well as infectious SARS-CoV-2 in laboratory tests. In addition, rhesus monkeys that were experimentally infected with SARS-CoV-2 and allowed to recover were protected from reinfection after a subsequent experimental challenge. These data tentatively suggest that most people are likely to develop neutralizing IgG, and protective immunity, after being infected by SARS-CoV-2.
However, not all COVID-19 patients do produce high levels of antibodies specific for SARS-CoV-2. A small number of patients in one study had no detectable neutralizing IgG. There have also been reports of patients in South Korea testing PCR positive after a prior negative test, indicating reinfection or reactivation. These cases may be explained by the sensitivity of the PCR test, and no data have been produced to indicate that these cases are genuine reinfection or recurrence of viral infection.
Complicating matters further, not all serology tests measure antibody titers. Some rapid serology tests are designed to be binary—the test can either detect antibodies or not, but does not give information about the amount of antibodies circulating. Based on our current knowledge, we cannot be certain that merely having any level of detectable antibodies alone guarantees protection from reinfection, or from a subclinical reinfection that might not cause a second case of COVID-19, but could still result in transmission to others. These unknowns remain problematic even with tests that accurately detect the presence of antibodies—which is not a given today, as many of the newly available tests are reportedly unreliable.
A Logistical and Ethical Quagmire
While most people are eager to cast off the isolation of physical distancing and resume their normal lives, mere desire to return to normality is not an indicator of whether those antibodies actually work, and no certificate can confer immune protection. Furthermore, immunity certificates could lead to some complicated logistical and ethical issues. If antibodies do not guarantee protective immunity, certifying that they do could give antibody-positive people a false sense of security, causing them to relax infection control practices such as distancing and hand hygiene.
"We should not, however, place our faith in assumptions and make return to normality contingent on an arbitrary and uninformative piece of paper."
Certificates could be forged, putting susceptible people at higher exposure risk. It's not clear who would issue them, what they would entitle the bearer to do or not do, or how certification would be verified or enforced. There are many ways in which such certificates could be used as a pretext to discriminate against people based on health status, in addition to disability, race, and socioeconomic status. Tracking people based on immune status raises further concerns about privacy and civil rights.
Rather than issuing documents confirming immune status, we should instead "re-open" society cautiously, with widespread virus and serology testing to accurately identify and isolate infected cases rapidly, with immediate contact tracing to safely quarantine and monitor those at exposure risk. Broad serosurveillance must be coupled with functional assays for neutralization activity to begin assessing how protective antibodies might actually be against SARS-CoV-2 infection. To understand how long immunity lasts, we should study antibodies, as well as the functional capabilities of other components of the larger immune system, such as T cells, in recovered COVID-19 patients over time.
We should not, however, place our faith in assumptions and make return to normality contingent on an arbitrary and uninformative piece of paper. Re-opening society, the government, and the economy depends not only on accurately determining how many people have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, but on a deeper understanding of how those antibodies work to provide protection.