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Infectious Diseases

Updated 08 September 2020

Covid-19 virus and antibodies can coexist in children, new study finds

Generally, when antibodies are detected in a person, it means that the virus won’t be detected, but in the case of children, a new study shows otherwise.

  • Scientists recently discovered something unusual in their study on children and Covid-19
  • Apparently, children can have Covid-19 antibodies and the virus in their system simultaneously
  • We should, therefore, not let our guard down, and continue implementing physical distancing and good hygiene

Children may largely have been spared the worst health impacts of Covid-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, but developing research shows they may still play a key role in viral transmission.

According to a latest study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, the virus and antibodies can coexist in young patients.

"With most viruses, when you start to detect antibodies, you won't detect the virus anymore. But with Covid-19, we're seeing both," Burak Bahar, M.D., lead author of the study and director of Laboratory Informatics at Children's National said in a news release.

The findings are based on a study of 33 Covid-19 patients aged 22 or younger at the Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., all of whom were tested for both the SARS-CoV-2 virus and antibodies against it.

Bahar explained that the data suggest that children still have the potential to transmit the virus, despite having antibodies in their system.

Virus took longer to clear in younger patients

The study results show that nine of the 33 patients tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, even after they had started developing the antibodies.

The research team also assessed the timing of viral clearance (the time it takes for a virus to no longer be detected in blood tests) and immunologic response. They found the following:

  • The median time from viral positivity to negativity, when the virus can no longer be detected, was 25 days. 
  • The median time to seropositivity, or the presence of antibodies in the blood, was 18 days. 
  • The median time to reach adequate levels of neutralising antibodies was 36 days (neutralising antibodies are critical for potentially protecting a person from re-infection of the same virus).

In paediatric patients between the ages of 6 to 15 years, the researchers also found that it took longer to clear the virus (around 32 days), while in patients between the ages of 16 to 22 years, it took around 18 days. 

Next part of study

Health24 previously reported that antibodies do their job by binding to specific parts of the virus, and neutralising its damaging effects.

These are called "neutralising antibodies", and if present, indicate two things: that the person has previously had SARS-CoV-2 infection, as they are only produced by infection; and that if that person encountered the virus again, the presence of antibodies would likely result in a level of protection.

Although the extent of immunity provided by SARS-CoV-2 antibodies is still not known, Bahar commented that the next phase of research will test if the virus that is present alongside the antibodies in children can be transmitted to other people, and that we need to keep being cautious and vigilant in curbing the spread of the virus.

"The takeaway here is that we can't let our guard down just because a child has antibodies or is no longer showing symptoms. The continued role of good hygiene and social distancing remains critical," said Bahar.