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How Omicron Affects The Immune System
07.March.2022

How Omicron Affects The Immune System

The COVID-19 pandemic has been going strong since 2020, and in that time, many people have become infected with the virus. As it does with all types of pathogens, the immune system has played an integral role in the prevention of severe illness for many people. While there have been a large number of deaths due to COVID-19, there has been an even larger number of recoveries.

As many people know, the way the immune system reacts to pathogens changes depending on a person’s level of health, and whether or not they have any underlying issues that may compromise their immunity and the action of their defense system against viral infections.

Changing variants of COVID-19 also have played a role in the body’s response to the disease. But how does COVID-19 affect the immune system, exactly? And is the Omicron variant changing the way our bodies fight against the infection? Read on for all you need to know about how Omicron affects the immune system.

What happens to your immune system when you have COVID?

Viruses make their way into the body by any means available. This could be through the nasal passages, mouth, eyes, or any open wounds or cuts. With so many options for infiltration, it’s no wonder that COVID-19 has spread so easily throughout the world. When it does get inside the body, it enters healthy cells to copy itself so that is can multiply and move more freely through the body.

Coronavirus, specifically, has spiky surface proteins that can easily latch onto the receptors of healthy cells. The cells most affected by COVID-19 are located in the lungs. While the coronavirus makes copies of itself inside these healthy cells, it also manages to kill some of them.

There are three types of immunity: innate, acquired, and passive. Innate immunity is the initial response, whereas acquired immunity is designed to attack specific viruses. Passive immunity is a type that can be received from either medicine or passed down from one’s mother. Since COVID-19 is a new virus, the innate and acquired immune systems are tasked with fighting it off, because the immune system is not able to defend as successfully when it encounters a brand-new virus.

 

Image by Maxime on Unsplash: Omicron and the immune system: can superimmunity end the pandemic?

 

As is the case with other types of viral infections, when the COVID-19 virus infiltrates and begins multiplying in the body, the immune system is alerted. At first, the innate immune system tries to initiate a response, but does so in a way that allows the virus to continue to spread. This occurs while the virus is still in the nasal passages.

Then, when the virus reaches the respiratory tract, the innate immune response kicks into higher gear by releasing cytokines, which are small proteins designed to signal cells to act. Once the innate immune system has given the signal, the acquired system begins making antibodies that are specific the COVID-19 so that they can seek out and destroy the virus by blocking it from entering cells.

Immune cells such as T- and B-cells are active during this time to help the already-infected cells. The combination of responses and cell action limits the infection and eventually clears the body of the virus.

How does the immune system adapt to the changing variants of COVID-19?

The immune system is typically designed to remember certain pathogens so that if the body ever encounters the same virus again, it is ready to fight it off. However, when it comes to Omicron and natural immunity, that may not be the case. This is because the new variant is just that: new – it is not the same virus that the body has encountered before.

While this may seem like bad news, research has found that the immune system may actually be able to adapt to these mutations by essentially changing themselves to counter the action of new variants. This evolution of the immune system in relation to COVID-19 variants is what makes scientists believe that a past infection with other variants may be at least mildly helpful against Omicron.

Because of the immune system’s attempt to essentially “get ahead” of the virus, the way Omicron affects the immune system may not be the same in a person who has been infected with a different variant of COVID-19. It is thought that along with the cells that originally responded to the COVID-19 infection, other antibody-producing cells are being reserved in a “just-in-case” scenario. While these cells lie in wait, they themselves mutate so they are able to make antibodies that can recognize new variants, the same way they would if the same variant had come along twice.

 

Image by Heather Morse on Unsplash: What happens to the immune system when you have COVID?

 

How long do antibodies last after overcoming the Omicron variant of COVID-19?

Research surrounding the lifespan of antibodies is highly focused on older variants, because without enough time to see the timeline, it can be hard to determine if Omicron antibodies have staying power. For example, recent research examined how long antibodies from older variants were able to stay within the body and found that memory B-cells, which are virus-specific antibodies, managed to remain constant or even increase six months after an infection by staying within the body’s lymph nodes.  

While this is encouraging, it doesn’t account for new data that has found that the Omicron variant may not be at the mercy of these evolutionary immune cell changes. Because of Omicron’s ability to break through and evade the immune system, people who may have been infected prior to recatching the virus, or those who have been vaccinated, are still vulnerable to infection with the new variant.

While the data surrounding how long Omicron antibodies stay in a person’s system is scarce due to the variant’s recency, some new research suggests an Omicron infection plus vaccination may lead to a kind of “super-immunity” against future variants. One particular study found that infection plus vaccination led to antibodies that were 1000% more effective at fighting off the infection than a second dose of the vaccine.

While not knowing how long you will be protected with antibodies following an Omicron infection can be difficult, it’s encouraging to know that you may actually be a part of the “super-immune” club!

 

Featured image by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

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