AHRQ reports on antibody response following SARS-CoV-2 infection, immunity implications

March 17, 2021

In the face of a rapidly changing field and an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in which people need to make healthcare decisions quickly, the Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC) Program has commissioned "living reviews" with regularly updated literature searches, to keep the medical community and the public up to date as more studies are published and these living reviews put new studies in the context of what is known, according to a report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

This rapid review was commissioned to inform practice points developed by the American College of Physicians. The review examined four questions:

  1. What is the prevalence, level, and durability of detectable anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies among adults infected with or recovered from reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) -diagnosed SARS-CoV-2 infection?
    1. Do the levels and durability of detectable antibodies vary by patient characteristics (e.g., age, sex, race/ethnicity, and comorbidities), COVID-19 severity, presence of symptoms, time from symptom onset, or as measured by different types of immunoassays (e.g., immunoassays sensitivity/specificity)? 
  2. Do anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies confer natural immunity against reinfection? 
    1. Does conferred immunity vary by factors such as initial antibody levels, patient characteristics, presence of symptoms, or severity of disease?
    2. Is there a threshold level of detectable anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies necessary to confer natural immunity, and if so, does this threshold vary by patient characteristics (e.g., age, sex, race/ethnicity, and comorbidities)?
  3. If anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies confer natural immunity against reinfection, how long does this immunity last? 
    1. Does immunity vary by factors such as initial antibody levels, patient characteristics, presence of symptoms, or severity of disease?
  4. What are the unintended consequences of antibody testing after SARS-CoV-2 infection?

For clinicians to properly use and interpret SARS-CoV-2 serologic tests, up-to-date guidance is needed. Understanding how to interpret antibody testing and whether past infection protects against future infection is also necessary to develop successful public health interventions to reduce disease spread. Interpreting positive antibody test results as indicative of immunity (i.e., protection from reinfection or disease), without understanding the degree of protection conferred by antibodies, could be harmful if positive antibody results lead individuals to stop recommended practices such as wearing masks and social distancing.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) do not currently recommend antibody testing to help guide individual healthcare decisions; rather, antibody testing is only recommended for community seroprevalence surveys and in select cases to confirm SARS-CoV-2 infection. While antibody presence is popularly equated with immunity, the actual relationship between antibodies and immunity varies among viral diseases. Reinfection frequently occurs with human coronaviruses that cause the common cold (hCoV-229N, hCoV-NL63, and hCoV-OC43), even though infection with these coronaviruses generates a host antibody response. For these coronaviruses, reinfection risk may be related to insufficient quantity or persistence of antibodies, insufficient antibodies at the site of infection, or frequent viral mutations that render host antibodies ineffective (similar to seasonal influenza).

Because SARS-CoV has not re-emerged since 2004, and MERS-CoV cases remain sporadic, experience from these two prior coronavirus outbreaks provides minimal insight into the reinfection risk with SARS-CoV-2. Documented cases of SARS-CoV-2 reinfection have been relatively rare compared with the overall number of new COVID-19 cases worldwide. Case reports have generated speculation regarding the role of antibodies in the risk and severity of reinfection but have not demonstrated clear trends. While case reports and small case series are helpful to generate hypotheses regarding reinfection risk in SARS-CoV-2, larger studies that follow patients over time are needed to provide estimates of reinfection risk. For example, longitudinal studies of recovered COVID-19 patients or large prospective electronic health record database studies of infection rates among patients with and without prior COVID-19 and with and without antibodies could improve understanding of whether antibodies confer protective immunity.

The aims of this rapid systematic review are to synthesize evidence on the prevalence, levels, and durability of the antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 infection among adults and how antibodies correlate with protective immunity. Given the rapidly evolving evidence within this field, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Evidence-based Practice Center (AHRQ EPC) Program will maintain this report as a living review with planned ongoing literature surveillance and critical appraisal. We will provide regular report updates as additional evidence becomes available, modifying the scope of the review as new directions in SARS-CoV-2 immunity research emerge. This review was conducted in coordination with the American College of Physicians (ACP) as part of AHRQ’s standing work to provide health professional organizations and systems with evidence reviews to support the development of clinical guidance for their clinician members.

Characteristics of the Antibody Response to SARS-CoV-2 Infection include:

·        Evidence suggests that the majority of adults develop detectable levels of immunoglobulin M (IgM) and immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies following infection with SARS-CoV-2 (moderate strength of evidence [SoE]).

·         IgM levels peak approximately 20 days after symptom onset or RT-PCR diagnosis and subsequently decline. IgG levels peak approximately 25 days after symptom onset or RTPCR diagnosis and may remain detectable for at least 120 days (moderate SoE).

·         Almost all adults develop neutralizing antibodies in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and these antibodies may remain detectable for at least 152 days (low SoE).

·         A small percentage of people do not develop antibodies in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection for reasons that are largely unclear but may be related to less severe disease or absence of symptoms.

·         Antibody prevalence does not appear to vary by age or sex, but older age may be associated with higher antibody levels (low SoE). Non-White race may be associated with higher antibody prevalence and levels (low SoE). COVID-19 severity and presence of symptoms may also be associated with higher antibody prevalence or levels (low SoE). More evidence is needed to draw stronger conclusions regarding how the antibody response varies by patient characteristics and disease factors.

·         Studies to date have not established the relationship between the development of antibodies after RT-PCR-diagnosed SARS-CoV-2 infection and the risk of reinfection. Studies based on index serologic testing suggest that the presence of antibodies is associated with a lower risk of a subsequent positive SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test

AHRQ has the report.

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