University of Michigan study suggests COVID-19 won't completely disappear

Thermometers flying off store shelves during pandemic

ANN ARBOR – New research from the University of Michigan shows that reinfections of seasonal coronaviruses are common, suggesting that the virus behind COVID-19 could be endemic.

The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

“There’s a hint that there could be SARS-COV-2 reinfections in the future, whether that’s because enough time is passed that your immunity has dropped off or that the virus has changed enough that it can escape your immune system,” first author Joshua Petrie, research assistant professor in the U-M Department of Epidemiology, said in release.

“The frequency of reinfections with the different seasonal coronaviruses suggests that SARS-COV-2 is not going to completely disappear.”

The researchers used data on 3,418 individuals from the Household Influenza Vaccine Evaluation from the years 2010-2018. Upon evaluating the data, the team found 1,004 seasonal coronavirus infections. Of those cases, 30 percent were reinfections and 5 percent were coinfections in which the individual contracted more than one type of coronavirus. Additionally, 27 percent of the reinfections occurred within one year of the initial infection, which researchers say is a relatively short period of time given the virus’ seasonal nature.

The team also examined binding antibodies, which adhere to the coronaviruses, to determine whether having those antibodies can help prevent future infections.

“In our study, participants had high levels of anti-spike protein binding antibody to seasonal coronaviruses, but these antibodies did not correlate with protection from infection,” Petrie said in a release. “This suggests that tests that measure the functional ability of antibodies, rather than just binding, may become more important for SARS-CoV-2.”

Senior co-author Arnold Monto noted that the current health crisis is the first documented pandemic to be caused by a coronavirus. Until now, researchers have relied on data from previous flu pandemics to prepare for possible outbreaks.

Monto is a professor of epidemiology at U-M’s School of Public Health and is the acting chair of the Food and Drug Administration committee that manages the approval of COVID-19 vaccines.

For the study, the researchers examined previous cases for four existing seasonal coronaviruses that tend to cause mild disease in order to understand how the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 might behave in the years to come.

“We can’t say that what is true for these coronaviruses will apply to the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, but these infections have been in our population for years and they may give us a clue on what we can expect with COVID-19 going forward,” Monto said in a release.

Other authors of the study include Emily Toth Martin, who co-leads HIVE, and Latifa Bazzi, both of the Department of Epidemiology at U-M’s School of Public Health, Adrian McDermott, Christian Hatcher, Dean Follmann and Sarah O’Connell of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Allyson Mateja and Dominic Esposito of the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.