Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers wanted to know how well human beings are holding up against an onslaught of new variants.
But, to figure out if our immune systems are up to the task would require a mathematical feat. So researchers turned to sophisticated computer models to find the answer.
Think of the coronavirus as one side of a zipper and the other side your immune system.
If every tooth matches and you can zip it up, your immune system is able to block invaders - but if the teeth don't match and the sides can't slide together, then your immune system can't match up with invading molecular virus parts.
We're not talking about antibodies, we're talking about T-cells.
"That side of the immune system is significantly more secure and significantly more robust," said Dr. Eric Vail, Director of Molecular Pathology at Cedars-Sinai.
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A zipper is a simple analogy of HLA types found on human T-cells and parts of antigens found on viruses. We need our HLAs to recognize viruses so we can defend ourselves.
"Can your body recognize the virus when it comes in? (Do) the markers that are on your immune cells... have the capability to even see it at all?"
Vail says a new report in PLOS Computational Biology is reassuring. While researchers did identify variants with the potential to escape our body's immune response, there's good news. Scientists only detected failure up to 15% of the time.
"We still have an enormous amount of functional reserve. They tested against 90% of the world's population. But in that 90%, the worst that happened was a drop off of 15%," he said.
The study found that in the last two years most people's T-cells have developed a memory that will fire up when faced with different variants. Exposure is part of the reason, but Vail says much of the credit goes to vaccines.
"It's basically training for your immune system. It trains it how to recognize and see a pathogen and how to respond against it in a way that protects you," Vail said.
His advice is to get vaccinated and get boosted. The more training, the better.