COVID-19 may produce 'autoantibodies' that mistakenly attack tissues, study suggests

A number of new reports suggest a coronavirus infection can mistakenly produce antibodies that attack the body's own tissues instead of the virus, The New York Times reported Jan. 28. 

The misled antibodies, called autoantibodies, may last for months after the infection has cleared, indicating that they could potentially explain the lingering symptoms some people experience, such as brain fog and joint pain, referred to as long-COVID. Autoantibodies are tied to other chronic conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. 

In a small study of nine COVID-19 patients published Jan. 25 in the preprint server medRxiv, five had autoantibodies for at least seven months. 

"It's a signal; it's not definitive," Nahid Bhadelia, MD, lead study author and director of the special pathogens unit at Boston Medical Center, told the Times. "We don't know how prevalent it is, and whether or not it can be linked to long COVID." 

Similarly, other studies suggest autoimmunity contributes to the level of severity of COVID-19 infections. The Times cited several related studies, including an October report that showed among 52 severe COVID-19 patients, more than 70 percent had autoantibodies, and a November study that found half of 172 hospitalized COVID-19 patients had at least transient autoantibodies that can cause blood clots and blockages. 

Experts worry that such findings raise the possibility that lingering autoantibodies could lead to an autoimmune disease in the future. 

"Once those autoantibodies are induced, there is no going back," Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, immunologist at New Haven, Conn.-based Yale University, told the Times. "They will be a permanent part of the person's immune system."

Dr. Iwasaki said there are still many lingering questions related to how autoantibodies may affect response to the COVID-19 vaccine or newly acquired infections. Researchers are continuing to evaluate patients over time to get a better picture of how long autoantibodies persist after infection, and whether they can cause permanent damage. 

More articles on public health:
US smoking habits pick back up amid pandemic, data shows
16 states where COVID-19 is spreading fastest, slowest: Jan. 28
COVID-19 test positivity falls in every region, age group: 4 CDC findings


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