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UPMC: Young adults have lowest antibody levels after COVID-19 infection

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UPMC on Tuesday said an analysis of adults who were infected and recovered from moderate COVID-19 infections showed that those younger than 30 had lower neutralizing antibody levels compared to older adults. The health system said this may mean that younger adults are less protected from a second infection compared to older adults.

The findings were posted Tuesday to a medical website ahead of a peer-reviewed publication, and indicate that vaccination is important even for young adults who have previously been infected with COVID-19.

“I know a lot of people think, ‘I had COVID, so I don’t need to get a shot,’” said senior author Dr. John Alcorn, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “But this study suggests that some patients, particularly young people, don’t have particularly good antibody memory after infection, indicating that immune boosting with vaccination is important for these people.”

UPMC said that during a COVID-19 infection, the body’s immune system will produce virus-specific antibodies and memory B cells, which stick around in the bloodstream and can help fend off a second infection from the same pathogen. However, over time, that protection can wane, and researchers are trying to understand the durability of this antibody response for COVID-19, according to UPMC.

Most studies have focused on patients who recovered from severe forms of COVID-19, which motivated UPMC researchers to investigate milder cases of the disease.

Alcorn and his team recruited 173 patients ages 19 to 79 who had mild or moderate COVID-19 infections and who visited their doctors for treatment, but were not hospitalized with the disease. UPMC said the researchers collected blood samples from participants several weeks after recovery and measured for antibodies.

Comparing patients, the researchers found that some people had high antibody levels while others had a lower response, and the difference wasn’t explained by the timing since infection. The researchers discovered, however, that patients younger than 30 produced lower antibody levels compared to all other age groups in the study. Since milder cases tend to result in lower production levels of antibodies, Alcorn said the researchers believe younger people were likely less sick than their older counterparts, even if they all had mild to moderate cases.

“Some people, particularly young people, don’t respond particularly well in terms of immune memory to prior infection. These people may not be well protected from a second infection,” Alcorn said. “But we now have a tool — vaccines — that can reinduce immune responses and boost protection. This study puts more evidence behind the recommendation that people who had COVID-19 should get vaccinated.”

UPMC also said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported new data showing that unvaccinated people who had a recent infection were five times more likely to get COVID-19 again than vaccinated people, indicating that vaccines provide better protection over prior infection.

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