COVID Provides Antibodies Against Common Colds, Study Finds

New evidence suggests that infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 might provide enhanced protection against the common cold. The study, published in Science Advances, comes as COVID cases appear to be surging again in the U.S.

A number of coronaviruses are endemic in humans and are thought to contribute to around a third of infections with the common cold. Although most people are exposed to cold infections in childhood and adolescence, immunity to these viruses lessen over time. Infection rates also vary across geographical regions.

The study from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, said that the spike protein of a coronavirus helps determine virus attachment and entry into host cells, making it a primary target for "neutralizing antibodies and a key component for vaccine development."

Although the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 has a different biological structure than that of some of the most common coronaviruses, it is thought to "back-boost antibodies to seasonal coronavirus spike proteins or provoke a cross-reaction after COVID infection," the researchers say.

An illustration of COVID-19
A U.S. CDC illustration of the structure of the novel coronavirus Getty

"This cross-boosting ... may also have long-lasting implications for immunity to seasonal CoVs as much of the population will be vaccinated and/or infected with SARS-CoV-2," the authors wrote.

COVID-19 and common colds

A number of previous studies have looked at the connection between pre-pandemic coronaviruses that cause seasonal colds and COVID-19. Research from the National Institutes of Health in 2020 found that immune cells for seasonal cold could recognize the COVID-19 virus and help explain why those infected during the pandemic exhibited a wide range of symptoms.

The NIH researchers theorized that these "memory cells" might explain why some people with COVID-19 get milder illness than others.

A January 2022 study from Imperial College provided initial evidence that people with high levels of T-cells from the common cold virus were less likely to be infected with COVID-19; the researchers said their findings could offer a "blueprint for a second-generation, universal vaccine," that could prevent infection with existing and new COVID-19 variants, including Omicron.

Cases of COVID-19 have been on the rise again in the U.S. over the past month. The seven-day average of new cases was 71,742 on Sunday, up from 58,079 a week earlier, according to the New York Times. Reports of new cases have doubled over the past month, as Omicron sub-variants continue to spread across the U.S. and elsewhere.

U.S. deaths from the virus are expected to top one million by the end of May.