A recent study shows that some COVID-19 survivors carry signs that their immune systems have turned on their bodies, with molecules called "autoantibodies" attacking the genetic material of the patient's cells.
Such an immune response could worsen the already-severe COVID-19 patients and could be the reason for some lingering problems months after a patient recovers from the initial illness — or "long-haul" coronavirus.
The study has revealed that by using existing tests that can detect autoantibodies, doctors can determine patients who might benefit from treatments typically used for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Some treatments decrease the frequency and severity of flare-ups, even though there is no cure for such diseases .
"It's possible that you could hit the appropriate patients harder with some of these more aggressive drugs and expect better outcomes," said immunologist at Emory University in Atlanta and lead author of the work, Matthew Woodruff.
The steroid dexamethasone, which is what President Trump took after his diagnosis, has proven to be effective in some severe cases to help lessen the immune response.
According to Ann Marshak-Rothstein, an immunologist and lupus expert at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, the autoantibodies could result in persistent and lifelong problems for COVID-19 survivors if they do turn out to be long-lasting.
"You never really cure lupus — they have flares, and they get better and they have flares again. And that may have something to do with autoantibody memory," said Marshak-Rothstein.
It is currently unclear if the autoantibodies were identified simply because researchers were looking for them or because they are representative of a more permanent alteration of the immune system.
"It's not clear to me what it all means at this point. It's going to take a little bit of time to understand if this is something that's going to lead to downstream pathology," said Dr. Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.