COVID-19 antibodies in some recovered patients ignore the virus and attack the body instead — in the same way autoimmune diseases do, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Atlanta’s Emory University examined 52 patients who either had severe or critical bouts of the coronavirus and found their immune system’s reaction to the bug mirrors diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, which can both be debilitating and lifelong, the New York Times reported.
Of the 52 patients, none of them had a history with autoimmune disorders but they are producing molecules that are called “autoantibodies,” which attack genetic material from cells rather than the virus.
The effect was documented in nearly half of the patients studied, the outlet said. The study was uploaded on the preprint server MedRxiv Friday and still awaits peer review.
The findings have scientists concerned that the misguided immune response could make COVID-19 symptoms worse — and could explain the science behind the mysterious “long haul” cases that are consistently cropping up across the globe.
But the study also offers an important clue when it comes to treatment. Those patients producing autoantibodies, like what happens with lupus or RA, may respond better to drugs that treat those disorders, the Times reported.
“It’s possible that you could hit the appropriate patients harder with some of these more aggressive drugs and expect better outcomes,” Matthew Woodruff, the lead author of the paper and an immunologist at Emory University, told the publication.
While there is no cure for lupus or RA, there are treatments that “decrease the frequency and severity of flare-ups,” the outlet reported.
Other scientists who weren’t involved with the study said they weren’t surprised by the findings because viruses have a tendency to create autoantibodies.
“I’m not surprised, but it’s interesting to see that it’s really happening,” Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, told the Times.
“It’s possible that even moderate to mild disease may induce this kind of antibody response.”
Ann Marshak-Rothstein, a lupus expert and immunologist at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, who was not involved in the study, echoed comments New York doctors made to The Post previously about the long-term implications of a COVID-19 infection.
If the coronavirus autoantibodies turn out to be long-lasting, as they are with other autoimmune disorders, health problems could be lifelong, the doctor said.
“You never really cure lupus — they have flares, and they get better and they have flares again,” she said.
“And that may have something to do with autoantibody memory.”