The world is nearly four years into the COVID-19 pandemic, but how the SARS-CoV-2 virus damages human lives, both in the short term and across a span of years, is still becoming clear. Earlier this month, a study in Lancet showed that 54% of those infected in the first months of the pandemic were still experiencing symptoms over three years later.
That study, like almost all news surrounding COVID-19, isn’t getting even a fraction of the attention it deserves as media outlets, businesses, and government join a collective effort to ignore the truth about this disease. However, there is another series of studies that should be getting even more attention.
Those studies, as summed up by the World Health Network, show that COVID-19 can have a direct negative effect on the immune system. These results suggest that surges in other diseases in the wake of the pandemic may not be due to “immunity debt,” as many had earlier suggested, but could be spurred by direct damage to the immune systems of those who had symptomatic and even asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. That includes children.
COVID-19 is far from the only disease that can leave its victims more vulnerable to infection by other viruses or bacteria. Measles and the flu can have similar effects over the short term—which is a big part of why these diseases can result in serious outcomes. And of course, in the case of HIV, the way the virus devastates the immune system over a period of months or years is the mechanism that makes it so deadly.
Papers showing that COVID-19 caused a significant depletion in critical elements of the immune system go back to the early months of the pandemic. There are now over 100 studies showing this effect. That includes evidence that COVID-19 causes an effect on the immune system similar to abrupt aging. That effect could be why survivors of COVID-19 have a higher risk of death that extends at least a year after their infection.
A year after COVID-19 surged across the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials noted an unusual wave of RSV virus in the United States. That disease is usually seasonal, striking over the winter along with the flu. Something similar happened the following year, with both flu and RSV surging well ahead of their regular season. In fact, NBC News noted that children were having severe symptoms not just from this early resurgence of normal respiratory diseases, but seeing infections from “parainfluenza viruses, adenoviruses, rhinoviruses and enteroviruses in ways never before imagined.”
Scientists soon put forward an idea that became heavily promoted by news media and angrily talked up by pundits. That idea, as reported by CNN, was that there was an “immunity gap” caused by “lockdowns, physical distancing, wearing masks, washing hands.” This supposed immunity gap was blamed for the early surge in RSV and the resurgence of other diseases. As The Washington Post put it, “Experts agree that people did the right thing by wearing masks and socially distancing because of the coronavirus, but the lack of interaction with germs also made our bodies far less resilient to disease.”
This is, to put it kindly, bullshit. To put it more precisely, it’s deadly disinformation.
As that World Health article notes, the immune system is not a muscle. It doesn’t benefit from exercise and it doesn’t get stronger from repeated use. In fact, fighting off infection can leave the immune system depleted, even when that inflection doesn’t include a virus that directly attacks the components of the immune system. And COVID-19 directly attacks components of the immune system.
The conclusion that increases in unseasonal waves of diseases following the pandemic year were due to “immunity debt” or an “immunity gap” overlooks the effects of COVID-19 infection. In particular, it ignores that while COVID-19 infections in children are more likely to be asymptomatic than in other age groups, that doesn’t mean children aren’t carrying high viral loads. In fact, young children often show higher levels of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, even while displaying few symptoms associated with COVID-19 in adults.
An early study of children who suffered severe effects from COVID-19 infection found a direct connection to changes in the immune system resulting in “hyperinflammation.” That finding is right in line with the findings of a study reported by the National Institutes of Health in August showing that COVID-19 alters the expression of genes within some immune system cells, leading to high levels of inflammation.
All of this suggests that the reason people—particularly children–were getting sick from diseases in the wake of the pandemic was not because they had been wearing masks, washing their hands, or limiting their exposure to disease: It was because infections from COVID-19, even asymptomatic infections, set them up for additional diseases by weakening their immune systems.
In 2022, The Washington Post reported that pediatric hospitals had a shortage of beds. There was a specific shortage of ICU beds for children suffering from severe pneumonia or other respiratory illness. One doctor who specialized in infectious diseases said he hadn’t seen anything like it during his 30-year career. Even though that Post article suggested that a lack of exposure could be behind the rising cases, it also noted the possibility of a direct connection between catching COVID-19 and becoming ill with RSV. It cited one pediatrician who said that even if babies had asymptomatic or mild cases of COVID-19, it might have generated “a certain level of immunosuppression,” setting them up for subsequent infection.
But that article actually came before the other Post article that attributed the rise in RSV to the precautions taken against COVID-19 rather than the effects of the disease itself. “Small interactions with viruses prime our system to better handle future exposures to viruses,” read the second article. “After years of masking in schools and distancing, children have fewer biological defenses to fend off multiple viruses at once.” It made no mention of COVID-19 playing a role.
All of this fed into the growing narrative that children were getting sick because of masking and isolation, rather than because of what the evidence actually shows: COVID-19 infections can devastate the immune system.
All of this helped to support calls for eliminating efforts to provide school programs remotely, to end masking in schools, and to erase efforts aimed at social distancing. These ideas were bolstered by the public perception that children don’t get COVID-19. Another look at the CDC report on the wave of RSV shows that the disease was most prevalent in the South—the regions where local governments were less likely to close schools, use remote instruction, or require masking.
Evidence suggests that the cause for surges in other diseases post-COVID-19 pandemic is not the efforts to reduce disease: It’s the disease. COVID-19 remains dangerous in ways than we currently comprehend—and much more dangerous when paired with a media more concerned about protecting businesses than children.
That danger increases with every reinfection. People, including children, are getting hit with new rounds of COVID-19 long before their immune systems have recovered from the damage done by previous infections. Every reinfection is a hammer blow, driving the ability to respond to other diseases down. This means that children in nursery schools may be developing immune systems usually associated with nursing homes.
A very serious concern is that multiple COVID-19 infections early in life might age the immune system leading to immune systems similar to those of elderly in considerably younger individuals.
The future may be one in which young people are burdened with diseases now associated with the elderly because COVID-19 was allowed to burn away their immune systems. All for an illusion of “normality.”
In provisional data for 2022, COVID-19 remains the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, well ahead of such perennial horrors as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and stroke. Even then, it’s impossible to say how much COVID-19 contributed to the number of deaths in other categories.
With over 770 million cases worldwide, the long-term social and economic impacts of the disease are staggering. In the United States, cases remain high in a large portion of the nation and around 18,000 people are being admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 each week. In absolutely no sense is the threat from COVID-19 over.