Coronavirus Immunity: The New Steroids?

How much would you risk for a million dollar payday?

Posted Apr 24, 2020

The fastest vaccine ever created was the Zika vaccine, which took 7 months to be ready for clinical trials, but was halted from further testing when the virus began to slow. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the fastest we could have a vaccine would be "a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go1." Even scarier is that other experts are predicting a longer timeline, noting that the record for the fastest vaccine created was actually 4 years for mumps

If we split the difference for these predicted timelines (1 year to 4 years) then we would theoretically have a vaccine that can be developed, tested, and ready for mass inoculation in 2.5 years. If efforts to develop the vaccine occurred shortly after patient zero was infected (likely November 2019), we'd expect the vaccine to be ready by April 2022. Happy Easter, buckle up.

Baseball's current plan is to create a quarantined city within Phoenix, AZ, isolating all 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams into a controlled area — a "bubble city" if you will. If professional sports are played starting in mid to late 2020, and carry on until April 2022, there is a very high probability that there will be infections among the athletes, there's no getting around it. Reality is that no matter what the herculean efforts for curtailment might be, there will always be some risk for players to become infected  — but not all of them.

Immunity is power

As we write this, there are two concurrent efforts to test and track Covid-19: one aimed at accurate testing for those that are symptomatic and a second that seeks to measure the presence of Covid-related antibodies in people's systems. It's likely that the United States will be able to conduct valid and reliable antibody testing before we have a vaccine for coronavirus. It's therefore possible that for a sport like football, there could be player testing during two full seasons (2020 and 2021) before scientists create a successful vaccine.

So, an interesting question arises at this intersection of sports, ethics, and society — should players' test results, which are their personal, private health information, be made public? Assuming players would be tested for coronavirus before they're admitted into the bubble city, is there a chance that the public (or the players' teams) would be made aware as to who has higher levels of antibodies, and who does not? 

While it’s still early, if Covid-19 behaves the same as other viruses, the presence of Covid-related antibodies likely means two things: the person has previously contracted the virus, and they technically can’t contract it again (at least for a while). In other words, there's a chance that we could know which players have "immunity" and which do not. Many celebrities and athletes who have contracted coronavirus have made their infections public

For example, let's say that it's September 2020 and the NFL bubble season is about to take place within an isolated city. Player A and Player B are both running backs of similar skill level, playing time opportunity, and injury history. Antibody testing has indicated that Player A has coronavirus immunity and Player B does not. Which player do you draft in fantasy football? Which player gets a better contract if they’re both free agents at the end of the season?

What would you risk to have it all?

The idea is nearly as old as the field of psychology itself: people are willing to go to great lengths, even risking themselves harm, to achieve a goal that's important to them. Early studies in this realm by Edward Tolman2, Kurt Lewin3, and others, showed that rats would run across an electrical grid to retrieve food if they were hungry enough. 

Elite athletes battle their entire lives for one shot at a professional contract. They've crafted their skillsets, bodies, and lives for a very brief window of opportunity to play the game they love at their peak physical and mental aptitudes.

So, given the chance, doesn't it seem reasonable that professional athletes would be willing to take on a major health risk — like exposing themselves to Covid-19 — if it offered them an economic or competitive advantage? 

Of course it seems reasonable, because we've heard this story before: Anabolic steroids. The steroids that professional athletes used most often can, in some cases, produce liver abnormalities and tumors; they have even been linked to premature death, including one study that linked 19 deaths caused by steroid usage between 1990 and 20124.

Unfortunately, those risks did not stop many players from using anabolic steroids as a performance enhancer.  In 2014, an anonymous poll asked active MLB players to estimate the percent of the league that is currently taking performance enhancing drugs. 143 respondents approximated that 9.4% of the league was "juicing."

Coronavirus on the other hand has a 4-5% mortality rate within the United States for all persons infected. While still early, there are other long-term health effects from coronavirus that effect the liver, heart, kidneys, and brain to name a few. It almost goes without saying, but seeking immunity for a leg-up on competition would very likely be a much greater risk than steroids.

Then again, psychological research demonstrates that we shouldn't be surprised if people are willing to take the plunge — especially if they think it will help them reach an important goal like, say, winning or making more money.



2. Tolman, E. C. (1932). Purposive behavior in animals and men. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.

3. Lewin, K. (1939). Field theory and experiment in social psychology: Concepts and methods. American journal of sociology, 44(6), 868-896.

4. Frati, P., et. al. Anabolic Androgenic Steroid (AAS) Related Deaths: Autoptic, Histopathological and Toxicological Findings, Current Neuropharmacology. 2015 Jan; 13(1): 146–159.