The small town of Vo' in northern Italy became one of Europe’s first COVID-19 hotspots in February 2020. Over year one, scientists are now discovering that the town is home to a surprisingly high number of so-called "super-immune" people who have unusually high numbers of antibodies against the virus.
Vo', a small rural town an hour’s drive from Venice with a population of around 3,200 people, saw Italy’s first COVID-19 death on February 21, 2020. Shortly after, lockdown was promptly imposed, while the military and teams of scientists descended on the town in a bid to better understand this emerging disease outbreak.
Prolific testing – crucially, including those that weren’t showing any symptoms – was rolled out across the vast majority of the small population, quickly revealing important insights into how to confront the outbreak. Back in June 2020, scientists from the University of Padova and Imperial College London published a paper on the people of Vo' that revealed that widespread testing, isolating infected people, and lockdowns are key in controlling the outbreak. This is now common knowledge, but it’s an idea that was first affirmed thanks to Vo'.
Now, this small town is still acting as an intriguing COVID-19 case study. The Times recently sent a reporter to the town who wrote that many of the town’s people still have a surprising amount of antibodies nine months on, longer than some experts predicted. Out of the 129 people who still have sturdy levels of antibodies nine months on from the initial outbreak, at least 16 had over double the levels they had in May. Furthermore, a fair number of people are what’s known as “super-immune cases,” a non-scientific term used to describe people with extremely high levels of antibodies against COVID-19.
“We think it is because they had a contact with a positive after May,” Enrico Lavezzo, a microbiologist from the University of Padua, told the Times. “The virus entered their body, infected a few cells but was quickly eliminated by the antibodies they already had. But something else happened: the virus stimulated the production of even more antibodies. None had any symptoms.”
“Many viruses stimulate the further production of antibodies when there is a contact,” Lavezzo added. “What we saw here with Covid is that a contact can more than double the antibodies you already have and that really extends the time you are protected.”
It’s unclear how representative these early insights might be to the larger question of COVID-19 antibodies. After all, there is still some uncertainty over how long antibodies and meaningful immunity can last. However, perhaps more will be revealed shortly, since the question of antibodies in Vo' is the subject of an upcoming study by the University of Padova and Imperial that’s currently undergoing peer-review, according to NBC News.