Research conducted at the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford purports that many of the cases of reinfection may actually be reactivation.5 Mossong points out that coronaviruses give long infections and their large genomic structures could cause them to remain in the body at low enough levels to remain undetected but ready to strike once more. “They could last longer in different parts of the body than respiratory areas,” Mossong told The BMJ, pointing to persistent loss of smell and taste as possible evidence that the virus remains within the body, replicating at a low level, for a long time.
What do the new #variants mean for reinfection?
SARS-CoV-2 variant B.117, first identified in the UK, has been shown to be more transmissible than previous variants, sparking a fresh wave of restrictions in the UK. But whether those who have already recovered from the virus are at risk is another unknown.
“I don’t know how likely that is to increase the chance of reinfections,” Hunter told The BMJ. He assumes that reinfections will be more likely with the new strain because of an absolute increase in the number of infections in general but hopes they will be less likely and less virulent than first infections.
Yet the emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, P.1, may throw that into question. A pre-print paper tracking the likelihood of being infected with the new variant, which emerged in #Manaus, Brazil, in late 2020, indicates that it “eludes the human immune response” triggered by previous variants. Reinfection is therefore likely.
“The question is how much genetic drift or change can happen in the virus, such that your immune system doesn’t recognise it anymore and doesn’t mount a protective immune response,” says Tuite, who spoke before the P.1 variant surfaced. Vaccine manufacturers have made assurances that their vaccines will stand up to the new B.117 variant, which according to Tuite suggests it hasn’t changed enough to make people more prone to reinfection because of the virus itself. (Vaccine reactions can be different to natural immune responses, although it’s too early to say what the differences are in the case of covid-19. Vaccine triggered immune responses are more consistent and could even be more powerful than those triggered naturally according to some studies.6)