Some healthcare experts point to an “immunity gap” tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others suggest alternative theories such as temporary immunodeficiency brought on by COVID-19. In most cases, RSV causes “mild, cold-like symptoms,” but the CDC states it also can cause serious illness, especially for infants, young children, and older adults, leading to emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and an increased demand for clinical laboratory testing.
Pulmonology Advisor reported that the disease typically peaks between December and February, but hospitalizations this season hit their peak in November with numbers far higher than in previous years. In addition to infants and older adults, children between five and 17 years of age were “being hospitalized far in excess of their numbers in previous seasons,” the publication reported.
“Age by itself is a risk factor for more severe disease, meaning that the younger babies are usually the ones that are sick-sick,” pediatrician Asuncion Mejias, MD, PhD (above), a principal investigator with the Center for Vaccines and Immunity at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told MarketWatch. Now, she added, “we are also seeing older kids, probably because they were not exposed to RSV the previous season.” Clinical laboratories in hospitals caught the brunt of those RSV inpatient admissions. (Photo copyright: Nationwide Children’s Hospital.)
Did COVID-19 Cause Immunity Gap and Surge in Respiratory Diseases?
CDC data shows that hospitalization rates linked to RSV have steadily declined since hitting their peak of 5.2 per 100,000 people in mid-November. In contrast, hospitalizations linked to the flu peaked in late November and early December at 8.7 per 100,000. Hospitalizations linked to COVID 19—which still exceed those of the other respiratory diseases—reached a plateau of 9.7 per 100,000 in early December, then saw an uptick later that month before declining in the early part of January, 2023, according to the CDC’s Respiratory Virus Hospitalization Surveillance Network (RESP-NET) dashboard.
Respiratory diseases tend to hit hardest in winter months when people are more likely to gather indoors. Beyond that, some experts have cited social distancing and masking requirements imposed in 2020 and 2021 to limit the spread of COVID 19. These measures, along with school closures, had the side effect of reducing exposure to influenza and RSV.
“It’s what’s being referred to as this ‘immunity gap’ that people have experienced from not having been exposed to our typical respiratory viruses for the last couple of years, combined with reintroduction to indoor gatherings, indoor venues, indoor school, and day care without any of the mitigation measures that we had in place for the last couple of years,” infectious disease expert Kristin Moffitt, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital told NPR.
Term ‘Immunity Debt’ Sparks Controversy
Other experts have pushed back against the notion that pandemic-related public health measures are largely to blame for the RSV upsurge. Many have objected to the term “immunity debt,” a term Forbes reported on in November.
“Immunity debt is a made-up term that did not exist until last year,” pediatrician Dave Stukus, MD, wrote on Twitter. Stukus is a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
An article published by Texas Public Radio (TPR) suggests further grounds for skepticism, stating that “the immunity debt theory doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny.”
“That was sort of the great unmasking, and everybody got viral illnesses,” she told TPR. “Now we’re past that. We’ve already been through that. We should have some immunity from that and we’re having it again.”
She added that “the hospital is filled with babies who are less than a year of age who have RSV infection. Those children weren’t locked down in 2020.”
The story also noted that not all Americans complied with social distancing or masking guidelines.
“We’re not seeing [less viral illness in] states in the United States that were less strict compared to states that were stricter during mask mandates and things like that. All the states are being impacted,” Barton told TPR.
Perfect Storm of Demand for Clinical Laboratory Testing
Experts speaking to The Boston Globe said that multiple factors are likely to blame for the severity and early arrival of the RSV outbreak. Pediatric hospitalist and infectious disease specialist Chadi El Saleeby, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, said the severity of some cases might be tied to simultaneous infection with multiple viruses.
Clinical laboratories experienced a perfect storm of infectious disease testing demands during this tripledemic. Hopefully, with the arrival of spring and summer, that demand for lab tests will wane and allow for a return to a normal rate of traditional laboratory testing.
At present, medical laboratories are collecting blood specimens for testing by authorized public health labs. However, clinical laboratories should prepare for the likelihood they will be called on to perform the testing using the CDC test or other tests under development.
“We need to be vigilant and understand everything related to the testing and the virus,” said Bodhraj Acharya, PhD, Manager of Chemistry and Referral Testing at the Laboratory Alliance of Central New York, in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily. “If the situation comes that you have to do the testing, you have to be ready for it.”
The current criteria for determining PUIs include clinical features, such as fever or signs of lower respiratory illness, combined with epidemiological risks, such as recent travel to China or close contact with a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient. The CDC notes that “criteria are subject to change as additional information becomes available” and advises healthcare providers to consult with state or local health departments if they believe a patient meets the criteria.
However, on Feb. 12, the agency revealed in a telebriefing that manufacturing problems with one of the reagents had caused state laboratories to get “inconclusive laboratory results” when performing the test.
“When the state receives these test kits, their procedure is to do quality control themselves in their own laboratories,” said Nancy Messonnier, MD, Director of the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), during the telebriefing. “Again, that is part of the normal procedures, but in doing it, some of the states identified some inconclusive laboratory results. We are working closely with them to correct the issues and as we’ve said all along, speed is important, but equally or more important in this situation is making sure that the laboratory results are correct.”
During a follow-up telebriefing on Feb. 14, Messonnier said
that the CDC “is reformulating those reagents, and we are moving quickly to get
those back out to our labs at the state and local public health labs.”
Serologic Test Under Development
The current test has to be performed after a patient shows
symptoms. The “outer bound” of the virus’ incubation period is 14 days, meaning
“we expect someone who is infected to have symptoms some time during those 14
days,” Messonnier said. Testing too early could “produce a negative result,”
she continued, because “the virus hasn’t established itself sufficiently in the
system to be detected.”
Messonnier added that the agency plans to develop a serologic test that will identify people who were exposed to the virus and developed an immune response without getting sick. This will help determine how widespread it is and whether people are “seroconverting,” she said. To formulate this test, “we need to wait to draw specimens from US patients over a period of time. Once they have all of the appropriate specimens collected, I understand that it’s a matter of several weeks” before the serologic test will be ready, she concluded.
“Based on what we know now, we believe this virus spreads
mainly from person to person among close contacts, which is defined [as] about
six feet,” Messonnier said at the follow-up telebriefing. Transmission is
primarily “through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs
or sneezes. People are thought to be the most contagious when they’re most
symptomatic. That’s when they’re the sickest.” However, “some spread may happen
before people show symptoms,” she said.
The virus can also spread when people touch contaminated surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. But it “does not last long on surfaces,” she said.
Where the Infection Began
SARS-CoV-2 was first identified during an outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Soon thereafter, hospitals in the region “were overwhelmed” with cases of pneumonia, Dr. Acharya explained, but authorities could not trace the disease to a known pathogen. “Every time a new pathogen originates, or a current pathogen mutates into a new form, there are no molecular tests available to diagnose it,” he said.