People who never get coronavirus could teach us more about coronavirus

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When her partner tested positive for coronavirus for two days before Christmas, Michelle Green was worried that she would get sick too. She was two months pregnant with her second child. He was a waiter at the time, and some of his own co-workers became infected with the virus.

“I told him to come into the guest room and not leave,” said Green, a 40-year-old project manager of a retail technology implementation in the District. The couple and their child postponed their Christmas celebration. Somehow, Green never tested positive.

Scientists around the world are investigating how fewer and fewer people like Green have managed to dodge coronavirus for more than two years, even after the highly transmissible omicron variant caused a record increase in cases this winter.

Most Americans have contracted the new coronavirus since it began spreading in the United States in early 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts hope that the study of people who have avoided infection can provide clues, perhaps hidden in their genes, that could prevent others from becoming infected or treating them more effectively. which contract the virus.

Covid deaths are no longer overwhelmingly among unvaccinated people as the number of older people grows

“What we are looking for are potentially very rare genetic variants with a very large impact on the individual,” said András Spaan, a clinical microbiologist and researcher at Rockefeller University in New York who is leading the research on genetic material. responsible for coronavirus resistance.

Spaan said the international study has already enrolled 700 participants and is examining more than 5,000 people who have presented themselves as potentially immune to coronavirus infection.

One of the participants in the study was Bevin Strickland, 49, a nurse anesthetist in Highpoint, North Carolina. who volunteered at a Queens hospital for six weeks starting in April 2020, just as that pocket of New York City became the epicenter of the pandemic.

“On the second day, I didn’t even bother to have covid because patients were heartbreaking,” said Strickland, who often worked without a mask to better connect with confused patients.

Most of the worst cases were elderly people who had been living in nursing homes. Some did not speak English. Many were disoriented from not getting enough oxygen as they struggled to breathe.

“I took off my mask all the time so they could see my face,” Strickland said. “It simply came to our notice then [an oxygen] mask them and help us deal with them. “

Strickland was tested weekly for coronavirus. He never tested positive. When he finished his volunteer period, he also did an antibody test that showed no evidence of a previous infection.

Neither Strickland’s parents have had the virus, nor has her twin sister, who works as a primary care physician. When both she and one of her twin children managed to escape the disease even after their other child became infected with a covid infection in his 1,200-square-foot home, Strickland began to suspect that he might have a natural immunity to the virus. . So she sought out the scientific study of the genetic makeup of people like her who never contracted coronavirus despite repeated exposures.

“I’m really hoping they’ll see some kind of similarity, some kind of gene in our DNA,” Strickland said.

The study of genes and other biological traits of people who never get coronavirus could shed light on how the virus develops or how it infects the human body and makes people sick, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University. School of Public. Health. The findings could lead to better medications and more specific public health advice.

Scientists don’t know why some people may be impervious to coronavirus, but Nuzzo said a hypothesis might be that some people have fewer receptors on their nose, throat, and lungs for the virus to bind. Other possible explanations could be previous exposure to a related virus or simply being born with a more adequate immune system to fight SARS-CoV-2.

But finding people who have never really had a coronavirus infection, not just those who had an asymptomatic infection or a less severe case of covid-19 and did not know they had contracted the virus, is tricky.

“These people should be extremely rare in the United States right now,” said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute of Health Metrics and Assessment at the University of Washington, which helps develop models that they love. the virus has spread.

IHME models suggest that the number of people who have had coronavirus in the United States may be even greater than recent CDC estimates based on blood tests, Murray said. The CDC said nearly 6 in 10 Americans have had the virus at least once; IHME estimates that the total is closer to 76 percent of U.S. residents.

Antibody testing can rule out people who have an immune response to the virus, but some of these tests can’t tell the difference between people who have they have antibodies because of the vaccines and those who have had the coronavirus, Murray said. The accuracy of many antibody tests decreases over time, so they may not identify someone who had been infected months ago, he added.

“It’s an elusive goal,” Murray said.

Once researchers find people who prevented coronavirus infection, the next one The challenge is to determine how they did it.

Because masks, vaccines, and social distancing can significantly reduce transmission, these factors can overshadow the biological differences between people who have not been infected and those who have tested positive.

Virus mutations are not slowing down. The new omicron subvariant proves it.

James McClellan is one of the lucky ones to have escaped the coronavirus so far.

One recent afternoon, the 52-year-old was one of the few people wearing a mask at the bustling Union Market in the district, where he works at the Banana Blossom Bistro. Taking precautions such as masking and getting vaccinated are some of the reasons McClellan believes he has managed to avoid giving a positive. But he also believes that his immune system can be naturally strong.

“I’ve always been resistant to things like this,” McClellan said. “I haven’t had the flu since 1992. Viruses don’t catch me.”

During the early days of the pandemic, McClellan worked delivering food to approximately 6,000 seniors in the district, many of whom eventually contracted coronavirus and some. of which death.

McClellan thinks that if he had had the coronavirus, he would have gone through his close contact with the big ones. He tested often because he did not want to spread the virus to the highly vulnerable population. His tests were always negative.

Many people who have not yet contracted the virus do not fully understand how they have prevented the infection, and some believe that they will eventually get covid.

“It has to be a combination of caution, circumstance, and luck,” said Bob Wachter, a professor and chair of the University of California, San Francisco, who has not had coronavirus medicine.

Wachter said people who always wear masks in public indoor spaces, stay up to date on vaccines and reinforcements, get tested frequently and avoid high-risk meetings or travel may have been less likely to catch the virus. Low levels of community outreach in certain regions or the ability to work from home may also have protected some people better than others, he said.

Lanae Erickson, an executive in a DC think tank, has taken many steps in the face of the pandemic to reduce her risk of exposure. He used to go Amtrak three times a week to Richmond, where his partner lives with his two children. When the pandemic broke out, Erickson bought himself a car to avoid traveling with people who might have covid. He worked virtually and has recently returned to the office for occasional meetings. When he goes to work, he masks himself. She is fully vaccinated.

Erickson and his partner have been tested frequently for the past two years, but the results have all been negative. Waiting for test results at home is “terrifying,” Erickson said. “You’re just looking at it thinking,‘ Is that a line coming? ”

From time to time she smells the pods of her clothes to see if she can still smell them.

“It has driven us all crazy,” Erickson said, laughing.

This past Christmas, when the omicron variant was fired, her partner’s 12- and 14-year-olds tested positive. But Erickson and his partner remained free of coronavirus and never felt ill. They spent Christmas socially distant: the gifts were cleaned with disinfectant and left at the doors.

“It’s total shit,” said Erickson, 40. “I don’t think I’ve done anything special to get it done, compared to my friends who have done it. They’ve been doing very similar things.”

Friends and colleagues have warned him that everyone will finally pass covid.

“I like that, okay, but I still don’t want that,” Erickson said. “And I don’t want to give that to anyone.”

Another rare virus puzzle: they got sick, they were treated, they got covid again

Experts say that another way to approach people who have never really had coronavirus is to study individuals, such as health professionals and professional athletes, who were constantly forced to test throughout the pandemic.

“If you’re a doctor who’s been practicing, there’s no way you’re not exposed quite considerably,” Murray said. the global health researcher at the University of Washington.

During the worst of the covid increases, James Park was seeing 12 to 18 covid patients a day at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, where he works as a physician and associate professor of clinical medicine. Anxiety was at full speed, especially in the early days, when so little was known about the coronavirus. There was an eight-step protocol for leaving a patient’s room and changing protective equipment.

“You went out and you felt radioactive,” Park said. “As if you have this infected cloud around you.”

After his turn, Park showered at work, changed into clean bushes to return home, and then showered at home again before greeting his wife and three children. One day Park felt sick and tested. He had to stay away from work for a week while waiting for the result. That returned negative.

Park would try another half dozen or so times during the first 18 months of the pandemic and never had a positive test, even though some of his colleagues became ill with the virus. Tests at home have also been negative. Park said he relied on his employer’s precautions to keep front-line workers safe.

At home, he and his family also took security seriously. They always masked themselves in indoor public places and ate at restaurants only two or three times. From time to time they had friends for outdoor meetings. Like many Americans, they bought a pit for meetings in the backyard. The schools attended by the children of Park have finished with the mandates of masks, but their children continue to wear masks inside. All family members are vaccinated.

By the end of April, no one in the family had tested positive. But Park did not think this would last.

“I told my wife we ​​would all get it at some point,” he said then. “That’s the mentality I have. It’s inevitable.”

Park was right. On Tuesday, one of his children tested positive.

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