ATHENS, Ga. - Spencer Pierce contracted COVID-19 back in March, just as the country was learning about this new virus and its strange symptoms.
"The most concerning part was the losing of taste and smell," the Athens 27-year-old says. "The rest was an achy, bad headache, just felt like a really bad flu/cold."
Pierce never took a COVID-19 diagnostic test. Still, he knows he had the virus because researchers found antibodies against it in his blood.
So, do those antibodies mean he is protected going forward, or could Pierce get re-infected down the road?
Dr. Ted Ross, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology and a Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia says there are still many unanswered questions about what happens after someone is exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
"Currently, we don't know how long the immunity, once someone has been infected the first time, how long that lasts," Ross says. "We don't know if that immunity can actually prevent a second infection."
Using blood and saliva samples collected from Pierce and other volunteers, Ross is heading up a two-year nationwide study to see whether exposure to the virus or a vaccine, once its ready, offers us some level of natural protection against reinfection.
"It looks like the immune response does not last a very long time," he says. "People start to have waning immunity within about four to six months. Some people may go longer, some may go shorter, but, essentially, we can tell it doesn't look to be a lifelong immunity."
Researchers hope to follow about 3,000 volunteers, focusing on those at higher risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, like healthcare providers, college students, first responders and minorities.
"One of our target goals is to try to get about 50% of our participants in the African American community, because they have been hit harder than other groups, and we need to understand why that is," Ross says.
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Spencer Pierce works at the Center for Vaccines and Immunology, where he has been giving blood samples once a month to track his antibody levels over time.
Research shows it is possible, although it is extremely rare, for someone to contract the virus twice.
Ross says he is hoping their research can shed more light on the possible risk of reinfection.
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