Outbreak on Boat May Show Good News in COVID-19 Fight

A Seattle fishing boat had a massive outbreak of COVID-19 that impacted 85 percent of the people on board. Thankfully, only one person needed to be hospitalized. It could have been disastrous had more of the crew been symptomatic. The outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship early in the pandemic showed us the horrific impact COVID-19 could have in a ship’s confined environment.

In this case, there is some good news: three people who had antibodies before boarding the boat appeared to be immune to the virus.  

Blood samples taken before setting sail showed three people had high levels of neutralizing antibodies. Eighteen days after leaving shore, the ship had to dock when one person became ill. One hundred and four out of 122 crewmembers had been infected. The three people with the neutralizing antibodies were not among the infected.

While this is a small study, it offers a remarkable, real-life, human experiment,” said Prof. Danny Altmann of Imperial College London, wrote in a commentary. “Who knew immunology research on fishing boats could be so informative?”

Obviously, for both safety and controllability, we would rather have lab studies than real-world results when working with disease research. But, when a virus is as new as COVID-19, it’s unsurprising that we’re learning so much about it from observations “in the wild” instead of labs. Without a cure or a specific drug to treat COVID-19, it would be unethical to purposefully expose people to the virus to do more research.

It’s a strong indication that the presence of neutralizing antibodies is associated with protection from the virus,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the Univ. of Washington Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratory. 

The other crew members who didn’t contract COVID-19 had jobs that shielded them from exposure. Seeing that antibodies can protect people from becoming ill gives researchers hope that a vaccine could help prevent the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show us how long antibodies provide protection. So, it doesn’t help us know how long a vaccine would be effective at protecting a person.

This is the first time we’ve seen that having these antibodies has a correlative protection from reinfection in people,” Dr. Greninger said. “I think people are — as I am — exhausted from this virus, and its tyranny, and its oppression and how it affects all of your life. And so we’re looking for that hope. I think this is helpful. There is sort of a light at the end of the tunnel here coming out of this difficult summer.”

We agree! Research had shown monkeys with antibodies were immune to reinfection. This is the first time we’re seeing that the antibodies can protect people in the real world. The news that there is now some proof that antibodies could shield us shows that vaccines could get us protected and help get our lives back to normal.
August 24, 2020
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