Immune systems learning to cope with coronavirus

7. April 2020

Our immune system needs time to get to know the coronavirus, says Dr Krista Ress, Head of the Centre of Allergology and Immunology at East-Tallinn Central Hospital.

The immune system is our protection against everything that might attack our bodies. “In the simplest terms,” explains Dr Ress, “it’s like the national Defence Forces, you can think of it as consisting of the artillery and snipers. The artillery takes up defence positions if we become ill and tries to suppress and get rid of any and all infectious agents and foreign organisms within our system. At the same time, snipers are learning which intruders should be targeted in particular. The immune system is most efficient once this sniper division takes up action.”

“Snipers are formed when a virus enters our system,” she continues, “antibodies are part of the sniper division which train themselves to take down a particular infectious agent. Any kind of training is time consuming and in this case, too, it will take our immune system time to recognise the coronavirus. For this reason, we develop antibodies a week or two after infection and not immediately.”

According to Dr Ress, our immune system can handle the coronavirus, but overreacts to it. “This virus is relatively new to our immune system,” says Dr Ress. “But once the virus is activated, it causes inflammatory reactions and the artillery goes into overkill mode. This is what makes the inflammation very severe.

Based on what we know so far, the reactions we see in people who have severe cases of the coronavirus are caused by the excessive anti-virus reaction of the immune system in fighting the infected cells.”

Therefore, there is no need to further boost the immune system. “Looking at the anti-inflammatory agents released in our body when fighting the inflammation this virus causes and the immune system boosters available to us,” she says, “we would effectively be boosting the same artillery that kills everything on site. These boosters will lead to higher temperatures, swelling and inflammation.”

In the current situation, Dr Ress recommends people carry on as usual with low levels of physical exercise outdoors, although certainly not in the company of other people, normal sleeping patters, which greatly help build resistance to any kind of diseases, and eating healthy. “I can repeat the most important message,” states Dr Ress, “stay home and maintain social distance. Our immune system can handle the virus if we don’t overdo it.”

There has also been talk of herd immunity, but this will take time to build. “It will be a long process depending on how the virus spreads in our population,” she notes. “It will take 6-12 months, meaning that we may talk about achieving herd immunity in time for the next seasonal outbreak.”

Even though every person has different immunity, it functions in the same way when looking at the bigger picture. “Genetically speaking,” Dr Ress concludes, “our immune systems are different, as some people are genetically predisposed to developing certain diseases while others are better protected, but overall, our immune systems operate in the same way.”