The SIREN study examined the impact of the infection on more than 20,000 volunteer health workers from across the UK and a pre-print study found only 44 cases among 6,614 people.
Two groups of people, one without evidence of previous infection and the other with evidence of infection in the past, were followed for up to six months.
The study – which has not yet been reviewed by colleagues – concluded that past infection reduces the chances of catching the virus again by 83% for at least five months.
The group was tested regularly for Covid-19.
“About 6,000 of the health care workers were people who had evidence that they were infected with SARS-CoV-2 … and about 14,000 of the health care workers were people who had no evidence of a previous SARS-CoV-2 infection.” Tom Wingfield, senior clinical lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, told the Science Media Center in the UK.
“The findings suggest that re-infection rates in the positive group were 83% lower than the negative group during the follow-up period.”
But the researchers warned that the protection was not total and that it was unclear how long any immunity would last. It is also possible that those who have a degree of immunity to the virus may still be able to transmit it to others.
“We now know that most people who have had the virus and developed antibodies are protected from re-infection, but this is not total and we still do not know how long the protection lasts,” said Susan Hopkins, senior medical counselor at PHE and co-leader of the study, said according to Reuters.
“Even if you believe you have already had the disease and are protected, you can be sure that you are not likely to develop serious infections. But there is still a risk that you may acquire an infection and pass it on to others.” , said Hopkins.
Hopkins raised the issue during an interview with the BBC’s Today program on Thursday.
“[Infection] reduces your risk by at least 80% …. but does not eliminate it, “she said.
“We have found people with very high amounts of the virus in nasal and throat swabs, which would be easily in the range that would cause transmission levels to other individuals.” Hopkins stressed that people who had previously caught Covid-19 still had to obey the rules of social distance to avoid transmitting the disease.
England is currently under a strict national blockade as cases increased during the holiday period. The UK has registered more than 3.2 million cases of infection.
“What [the study] the real emphasis is that immediately after infection you probably have a high level of protection but this will break down over time, “Niall Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist at Imperial College London, also told the BBC.
“Transmission is now slower than it would have been in the absence of people becoming infected, and those people who have had the virus before have a lower risk of becoming infected – and this is cumulatively slowing the spread.”
“This study supports the hypothesis that primary infection … provides a high degree of immunity to recurrence of infection in the short and medium term; with similar levels of symptomatic infection prevention as currently licensed vaccines for working-age adults,” PHE report notes.
“Primary infection also reduces the risk of asymptomatic infection and thus transmission; this is especially important in [that]… health care was seen as a potential driver for the continued transmission of Wave 1 community in the UK “.
Researchers will continue to study antibody responses to infection and the impact of Covid-19 vaccines.
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