The number of people who have coronavirus immunity could be higher than antibody tests suggest, a new study indicates.


Research from Karolinska Institutet and Karolinska University Hospital shows that many people with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 demonstrate so-called T-cell immunity to the disease. This is even if they have not tested positive for antibodies to the virus.

Marcus Buggert, assistant professor at the Centre for Infectious Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, and one of the paper’s main authors, said: “T-cells are a type of white blood cells that are specialised in recognising virus-infected cells, and are an essential part of the immune system.

“Advanced analyses have now enabled us to map in detail the T-cell response during and after a COVID-19 infection. Our results indicate that roughly twice as many people have developed T-cell immunity compared with those who we can detect antibodies in.”

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In the study, which has not been peer reviewed and has been published as a pre-print, the researchers performed immunological analyses of samples from more than 200 people, many of whom had mild or no symptoms of COVID-19.

It involved inpatients at Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden and other patients and their exposed asymptomatic family members who returned to Stockholm after holidaying in the Alps in March. Healthy blood donors who gave blood during 2020 and 2019 were also included.

Consultant and associate professor Soo Aleman, who has been testing patients since the start of the outbreak, said: “One interesting observation was that it wasn’t just individuals with verified COVID-19 who showed T-cell immunity but also many of their exposed asymptomatic family members.

“Moreover, roughly 30 per cent of the blood donors who had given blood in May 2020 had COVID-19-specific T-cells, a figure that’s much higher than previous antibody tests have shown.”

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Professor Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren at the Centre for Infectious Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, and co-senior author said the findings were potentially very good news.

He said: “Our results indicate that public immunity to COVID-19 is probably significantly higher than antibody tests have suggested. If this is the case, it is of course very good news from a public health perspective.”


The researchers say larger and more longitudinal studies are now needed on both T-cells and antibodies to understand how long immunity lasts.

Reader Q&A: Can my immune system fight disease without me realising?

Asked by: Jenny Price, Weston-super-Mare

With each new breath, you take in about 50 potentially harmful bacteria. Virtually all of these are promptly destroyed by your immune system without you feeling a thing. But some bacteria and viruses can successfully infiltrate the body and lie dormant without causing any symptoms for many years until they suddenly flare up.

Chlamydia infections, for example, show no symptoms for 50-70 per cent of women, because they lurk beneath the radar of the immune system. Any disease that your immune system does pick up, however, triggers swelling, inflammation and fever as the disease is fought, so that’s something you will definitely notice.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.