Today, Reuters and the New York Times announced the “first identified case of a true reinfection with COVID-19.” The article referred to a 33-year-old male in Hong Kong who was initially diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized in April months ago, then subsequently went to Spain, and then upon his return tested positive again after returning on Aug. 15. This item was quickly picked up and flashed on literally every news site on the Web.
The investigators suggested they had truly documented a reinfection because they had molecularly (RNA) sequenced the virus found in the patient both times he was identified and was found each time as having a different SARS-CoV-2. The second time the virus genes appeared more likely to have come from Europe than Asia.
This report was in a paper, which was “accepted” but not published by the international medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. However, a review of that Journal’s website did not include the accepted manuscript or any press release. Therefore, no definitive judgement about the techniques or report can be made.
However, several aspects of this “article” raise concerns.
-The individual was described as “not being ill” during the second time he was shown to have the virus. Therefore, it is questionable whether he was truly “infected” with COVID-19 or simply contaminated with the virus.
-Apparently the virus was not “grown” from the patient, but the genetic material was identified and amplified presumably by PCR. This means there was no evidence that the virus detected the second time was live and not just fragments of genetic material.
-This single, unusual case goes against data from every other legitimate, published paper on the subject. In fact, the initial report from Korea that suggested reinfection with COVID-19 also demonstrated genetic material in asymptomatic individuals. Subsequently, the investigators showed they could not grow virus from any of these individuals. This indicated they were detecting viral genetic debris and not documenting true “reinfection.” Similar concerns can be raised about this case.
-Infected means the virus has re-infected a person, taken over their cells and is reproducing live virus particles that can be transmitted to others. This means the person is ill and can infect other people. Contaminated means there are small amounts of virus on the mucosal surfaces, but the person is immune, not ill and any virally infected cells are being destroyed by the immune system. This also means there is very little virus so it can only be detected by the billion-fold amplification of PCR. It is very likely there is not enough virus that it would infect others.
Therefore, I disagree with the conclusion; “Our results prove that his second infection is caused by a new virus that he acquired recently rather than prolonged viral shedding,” asserted by Dr. Kelvin Kai-Wang To, an author and a clinical microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong. The patient may have become contaminated with the second virus, but there is no evidence he was infected with it! The immune system was doing its job!
Even worse, the Reuters article leaped to the conclusion: “The findings indicate the disease, which has killed more than 800,000 people worldwide, will continue to spread amongst the global population despite herd immunity.” Reuters later changed the “will” to “may,” but the article’s conclusion that a reinfection in a single person would significantly reduce the potential for immunity to minimize a “re-epidemic” is absurd.