If you’ve already had the coronavirus, is it possible to be reinfected by a COVID variant?

reinfected by covid variant
Photo via Alachua County/Flickr (Public Domain)

A critically ill COVID-19 patient in France has sparked fears over coronavirus mutations being contagious enough to cause severe reinfection. So, is it possible to be reinfected by a COVID variant, even if you’ve already had the coronavirus?

The 58-year-old man, who had a history of asthma, according to a Feb. 10 report, initially experienced an infection in September with symptoms such as a mild fever and difficulty breathing.

The man later tested negative twice in December following his recovery, only to be admitted into the hospital the following month after being reinfected by the COVID variant strain first found in South Africa. Due to the length of time between infections, researchers could rule out any “viral shedding” that may have resulted in a second positive test.

The South Africa strain, aka B.1.351, joins other potentially contagious variants first discovered in the United Kingdom and Brazil. With cases of B.1.351 now identified in multiple states, scientists are growing concerned that the variants may eventually become a predominant source of infection—particularly, given that the current vaccines were developed before the virus mutated.

Studies have found that though the vaccines produced by Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax do seem to work against B.1.351 (but not necessarily the AstraZeneca version), they may also have a decreased effectiveness. Yet, data seems to suggest that vaccinations protect against variant strains much more reliably than relying on antibodies from previous infections alone.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer how imperative vaccinations will be if one of the variants becomes a primary source of infection in the U.S.

“Well, the variants, for example, particularly the South African variant, is obviously here,” said Fauci, citing a few cases in South Carolina and Maryland. “It’s certainly not a dominant strain, but if it becomes dominant, the experience of our colleagues in South Africa indicates that even if you’ve been infected with the original virus, that there is a very high rate of reinfection.”

Fauci stressed that with this variant, it has become clear that a “previous infection does not seem to protect you against reinfection.”

“That gets to the point that we’ve said over and over again that vaccination is very important,” Fauci continued. “We need to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can. And when the vaccine becomes available to certain individuals, please, take the vaccine, even though there is diminished protection against the variants, there’s enough protection to prevent you from serious disease, including hospitalization and deaths.”

But even before these variant strains began to surface, there was already evidence suggesting that antibodies alone weren’t enough to protect from subsequent COVID-19 infections.

A study published by researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Naval Medical Research Center examined nearly 2,000 Marine recruits who had undergone a two-week supervised quarantine before starting basic training. The findings revealed several asymptomatic transmission instances, including among 10% of recruits who had repeatedly tested negative before basic training and were later reinfected.

Worth noting is that the study was conducted back in November before the new variants emerged. Of 189 recruits who had blood tests indicating they had previously been infected, 19 tested positive for the virus again over the six weeks of basic training. 

According to Dr. Stuart Sealfon, a neuroscience professor at the Icahn School of Medicine who co-authored the study, almost half of the recruits became infected onsite during basic training. “A previous infection does not give you a free pass,” Sealfon said. “A substantial risk of reinfection remains.”

Though Sealfon noted that none of the reinfections caused severe illness, the recruits were not immune to spreading the infection to others.

Likewise, there is so much still unknown about people having the ability to continue spreading and transmitting the virus even when fully vaccinated. As such, the findings of the Naval Medical Research Center study should serve as a critical reminder of why masking and social distancing measures will be necessary until herd immunity through mass inoculation has been achieved.

Either way, people should know that, at this point, it appears that it’s possible to be reinfected by a COVID variant, even if you’ve already had the original virus.

Sources: Washington Post, Associated Press, Mount Sinai

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