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Local scientists studying levels of immunity in COVID-19 survivors

If you get COVID-19 and recover, are you immune? And if so, for how long?

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a question on many people’s minds: If you get COVID-19, and recover, are you immune? And if so, for how long?

Teams of local scientists from UT Health San Antonio and Texas Biomedical Research Institute are working together, trying to answer those exact questions.

Currently, scientists don't know whether COVID-19 immunity will be like the flu, where people get an annual vaccine, or more like the chickenpox, which people usually only get once in their lifetime.

UT Health SA Dr. Evelien Bunnik's goal is to figure out where COVID-19 falls on the spectrum.

"It could be three months. It could be a year. It could be 10 years," Bunnik said. "Those questions are also important for vaccine evolvement. How long will those vaccines be protective? Will we need booster shots at some point?"

She broke down the way our immune systems work when it comes to the novel coronavirus, using a lock and key metaphor.

The virus has spikes on the outside that Bunnik said are like keys. The virus uses the keys to lock into a healthy human cell and bind to it. Then the virus multiplies in that cell, allowing it to spread. A person's immune system forms antibodies that hook onto the end of the keys to fight that, blocking their ability to lock onto cells.

Bunnik and her team are studying these antibodies in two unique ways.

"First, we are looking at what we call longitudinal responses, so we try to follow people over the course of a year, or even longer, to see what happens with their antibody levels and antibody responses," Bunnik said. "We're going to start small with about 10 people. You can imagine even with 10 people, multiple samples over the course of a year, that is a lot of samples to process."

The second distinguishing factor is the mice they're using for the tests.

Bunnik's colleague has a group of testing mice whose immune systems have been altered to work identically to humans. It's called a humanized mouse.

The combination of both approaches makes the work more important.

"It's really exciting, and it makes me feel like I'm a part of something bigger," she said.

Right now, larger businesses like pharmaceutical companies are pouring billions of dollars into the race to create the first vaccine.

Bunnik's study will take much longer than that.

Her ultimate goal is to use her results to make an even better, stronger vaccine down the line.

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