A group of researchers affiliated with the Rockefeller University in New York recently uploaded a study to the preprint server bioRxiv, meaning the works aren’t peer-reviewed as yet. Their study indicates that some people can have “superhuman immunity,” individuals that, for whatever reason, form what can be considered extraordinary immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. These individuals that possess superhuman immunity—also called “hybrid immunity,” have already been immunized with one of the mRNA-based vaccines. The Rockefeller University scientists report that those with “hybrid immunity” appear to generate significant antibody responses naturally while also flexibly producing antibodies, enabling them to resist the current COVID-19 variants causing havoc around the world. It could well be that these individuals can also fend off future variants.

Covered recently by NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff, Paul Bieniasz, a Rockefeller University virologist and study lead, has been involved with several studies pursuing this phenomenon. In the preprint, Dr. Bieniasz did disclose direct ties to payment from Pfizer, makers of the only currently approved vaccine product in the United States. Dr. Bieniasz declared for the NPR piece, “One could reasonably predict that these people will be quite well protected against most — and perhaps all of — the SARS-CoV-2 variants that we are likely to see in the foreseeable future.”

The Study

In this yet to be reviewed study, the New York-based team of scientists uncovered several antibodies in the “hybrid immunity” community that we’re capable of neutralizing six variants of concern under study—including Beta, Delta, and many other related viruses, including one found in bats as well as the first coronavirus behind SARS-CoV, reported NPR’s Ms. Doucleff.

Apparently, the scientists declared that those with “hybrid immune response” are individuals that were first exposed to SARS-CoV-2 in 2020 and then “immunized with mRNA vaccines this year,” wrote Ms. Doucleff. In fact, Theodora Hatziioannou, a research professor from Rockefeller University, participated in the recent studies and commented on people in this “hybrid’ immune cohort:” “I think they are in the best position to fight the virus. The antibodies in these people’s blood can even neutralize SARS-CoV, the first coronavirus, which emerged 20 years ago. That virus is very, very different from SARS-CoV-2.”

Resisting Super Virus Made in Lab

The researchers from New York report that these “superhuman’ antibodies even “deactivated” a human-engineered virus, designed purposely in a lab to resist neutralization with 20 mutations known to prevent SARS-CoV-2 antibodies from binding to it. The NPR piece summarized that only those with “hybrid immunity” could neutralize this engineered pathogen.

Case for Pre-infected to Receive Vaccine

The study results appear to make a case for those who have been infected by SARS-CoV-2 and are already vaccinated with an mRNA-based vaccine. The researchers emphasize that at least for those with this “hybrid immunity,” the mRNA vaccines have the potential to become powerful “pan-coronavirus vaccine,” ensuring protection against future variants.

Other Studies

NPR reports on other studies that indicate there is something to this theory as some studies show comparable findings. In one such study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers found that individuals exposed to the first SARS-CoV nearly 20 years ago and vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine meant for SARS-CoV-2 found that their antibodies neutralized the new coronavirus.

Some Questions:

The researchers put forth a few questions:

  • Of course, the ‘hybrid immunity” applies if one has already been infected with SARS-CoV-2—what about breakthrough infections? If a person has innate “hybrid immunity” attributes, could it be possible that these could be triggered even though they were infected after immunization? Remember, with breakthrough infections, many vaccinated people now fall ill to SARS-CoV-2—could this trigger the hybrid immunity phenomena in those with the innate attributes?
  • Could a third dose of the booster trigger a “hybrid immunity” response in some individuals that were never infected?

About Rockefeller University

Located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, this private graduate university focuses primarily on the biological and medical sciences while providing doctoral and postdoctoral education. This university is the oldest biomedical research institute in the United States, going back to 1901. The university’s current endowment stands at $2.32 billion.

In the Laboratory of Virology and Infectious Disease, the teams here investigate how viruses propagate, how they interact with host cells, and how they cause disease. The recent development, by this laboratory and others, of a cell culture infectious system for HCV has drastically increased our ability to study this important pathogen. Now they are combining genetic analyses in cell culture with biochemical techniques, structural biology, and animal models to elucidate every aspect of HCV biology and fight and prevent infectious disease.

The research for this study originates out of the Laboratory of Retrovirology, also known as the Bieniasz Lab.

Lead Research/Investigator

Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.

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