Recent research by the University of Hong Kong has given more weight to the troubling news of patients, who were diagnosed with COVID-19 and seemingly recovered, testing positive for the virus again.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is still investigating the reports of patients testing positive after being released from treatment, noting that it has no findings yet.
Meanwhile, on Monday in a statement, University of Hong Kong researchers said, “an apparently young and healthy patient had a second case of COVID-19 infection which was diagnosed 4.5 months after the first episode,” the TIMES reported.
For close to eight months, COVID-19, a disease caused by a rare strain of the coronavirus family, has held a firm grip on humanity, spreading to over 200 countries, infecting almost 24 million people, and causing the death of over 800,000.
There is no vaccine yet for the pneumonia-like contagion that has continued to defy science as scientists are still struggling to answer many questions regarding how the virus spreads, the exact nature of the disease it causes, and especially the possibility of reinfection.
There have been widespread reports of possible reinfection in places where the virus has been battled and contained. The most dramatic of these was in mid-May when COVID-19 reemerged in Wuhan, the birthplace of the deadly pandemic, sparking fears of a fresh wave of infections in China.
This led to Chinese authorities ordering the testing of all 11 million residents of the city under 10 days.
According to nna widely circulated document from Wuhan’s anti-virus department, cited by several Chinese local media, six new locally transmitted cases were reported within one district in Wuhan nearly two months after no infections have been seen in the entire city.
While these developments are building on research suggesting the possibility of reinfection, the latest by the Hong Kong-based university would be the first to find a patient that tested positive before contracting the virus again.
There have also been reports of presumed reinfection in the United States and elsewhere, but none of those cases have been confirmed with rigorous testing. Recovered people are known to shed viral fragments for weeks, which can cause tests to show a positive result in the absence of the live virus.
But according to the Times report, Hong Kong researchers sequenced the virus from both rounds of infection and found significant differences in the two sets of viruses, suggesting that the patient was infected a second time.
The report said, “the 33-year-old man had only mild symptoms the first time, and no symptoms this time around. The reinfection was discovered when he returned from a trip to Spain, the researchers said, and the virus they sequenced closely matched the strain circulating in Europe in July and August.
“Our results prove that his second infection is caused by a new virus that he acquired recently rather than prolonged viral shedding,” said Kelvin Kai-Wang To, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong.
Forensic experts said the research could have a “significant” influence on how governments manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, epidemiologists are saying that the fact the Hong Kong man is the first documented case of reinfection does not make the quest for a vaccine futile.
“If anything, it might mean that researchers and scientists might have to consider the possibility of a multi-tiered vaccine strategy, where different vaccines are tailored towards different strains of the virus,” said Ikemesit Effiong, head of research, SBM, Nigeria’s leading intelligence platform.
“The case of the Hong-Kong man shows the strain he has now is different from the one he contracted and recovered from.
“While this complicates the overall global response, it doesn’t necessarily make COVID an impossible virus to handle.
“It doesn’t make it more difficult, it means the fight will take a different dimension and it is good that the issue of reinfection is coming now that vaccines are still very much in the trial phases, so facts like these can be incorporated into ongoing quests to find a vaccine for the contagion”, said Mr Effiong.
Experts had hoped that the new coronavirus might behave more like its cousins SARS and MERS, which seemed to produce long-lasting immunity of a few years.
“One thing is that the human understanding of the virus continues to grow every day. It changes and mutates and now ongoing research efforts would have possible cases of reinfection as an additional focus”, said the researcher.
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