Some people who battle through a cold during Thanksgiving will recover long enough to finish their holiday shopping before a second cold virus strikes and destroys their New Year’s plans. Like most good things, immunity doesn’t last forever.

The immunity associated with coronaviruses that cause the common cold are known to be ephemeral, which suggests that immunity to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 might be similarly short-lived. This question is studied by a report published September 14 in Nature Medicine. The results potentially may throw a wet blanket on the hopes of millions of people counting the days until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

As part of this study, scientists monitored 10 individuals for more than 35 years to determine how often they became infected with the four known seasonal coronaviruses. The names bear a family resemblance to the virus behind the current pandemic: HCoV-NL63, HCoV-229E, HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-HKU1. All of them either cause mild symptoms of the common cold or no symptoms at all. 

“The new data show that immunity to other coronaviruses tends to be short-lived, with reinfections happening quite often about 12 months later and, in some cases, even sooner,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), wrote in a commentary about the research. In a few instances, reinfections occurred as early as six months and nine months after a prior infection, the study authors found.

Francis Collins, MD

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