Tag Archives: RT-PCR

Is the virus still within you? Will it cause trouble?

Let’s say you’ve recovered from a bout with COVID-19. Is the virus still with you? Could it come back and cause trouble? Given the data in a recent paper [ Nature vol. 591 pp. 639 – 644 ’21 ] — https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03207-w.pdf, it’s quite possible.

But first a story about my grandmother.  She was born somewhere around the Baltic Sea in 1880 and came to America in 1893.  She died of undiagnosed (hence untreated) miliary Tuberculosis in a University Hospital in 1967.  Just about everyone in Europe in the 1880s was exposed to TB and just like SARS-CoV-2 many if not most were asymptomatic.  Their lungs walled off the organism in something called a Gohn complex — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghon%27s_complex.  The organism didn’t die — and probably broke out of the complex as my grandmother aged and her immune system got weaker and weaker.  It is very unlikely that she picked it up by exposure in the 1960’s.  As they say TB is forgotten but not gone.  

Which brings me to the Nature paper.  At first I thought it was great and very optimistic.  Some 87 people from New York City who had symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection (proven by finding the viral genome using RT-PCR technique).  The authors studied the antibody responses at an average of 1.3 and 6.2 months after infection.  Although the antibody levels dropped (which always happens) they changed so they bound the virus more tightly.  This is called affinity maturation — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affinity_maturation.  

So that’s good? 

No that’s bad because it implies that the protein stimulating affinity maturation is still around. The authors note the persistent antigenic stimulation of the immune system is possible because an “antigen trapped in the form of immune complexes on follicular dendritic cells .. . . . can be long-lived, because follicular dendritic cells do not internalize immune complexes”.  

Well maybe, but the paper gives evidence for another mechanism of antigen persistence (which I find more persuasive). 14 of the people had intestinal biopsies for appropriate clinical indications (see Table 7 in the supplementary information of the article). In some of the biopsies they detect viral antigen in some of the enterocytes (cells which line the inside of the gut) — I’m assuming the antigen is the viral spike protein, but it’s hard to find exactly what it is. 

This is quite bad, as the lifetime of the enterocyte is 5 days.  This means that the antigen is being continually produced, which means that the mRNA for the antigen is being continually produced, which in turn means that the viral genome is still around.  The mean lifetime of cellular mRNAs is 10 hours although some hang around for days, however I doubt that the mRNA responsible for the viral antigen had lasted for 2.8 to 5.7 months which is the time after clinical infection when the biopsies were done. 

So it is possible, that like TB in the Gohn complex, the immune system has fought the virus to a draw, but that the intact organism could be still present.  As in my grandmother, it is possible that the virus will reappear as the immune system weakens with age (something that happens in all of us). 

In that case we wouldl have recrudescence not reinfection. 

PS:  My grandmother came to this country at age 13 alone and speaking no English.  Every time I feel sad at what the pandemic has put us all through, I think of that generation.  

PPS: When she got sick, I wanted to put her in the hospital where I was an intern, but our family GP (Dr. Richard A. Gove) told me taking care of my own family was a very bad idea and put her elsewhere.  I doubt that I’d have made the diagnosis, or that anyone at our hospital would have. 

PPPS:  I don’t know if they still do autopsies, but I was always able to get one after I’d tell families of the deceased about my grandmother.  It meant that my wife and I and our two little kids were all screened for TB. 

PPPPS — a friend brought up the following — Eleanor Roosevelt, who was thought to have aplastic anemia, was treated with prednisone and later found to have died of military tuberculous, probably the recurrence of tb acquired some 4 decades earlier.