A doctor in Israel has reportedly been reinfected with COVID-19 — three months after her first bout with the coronavirus.
While there have been several reports of reinfection of COVID-19 globally, the news comes amid ongoing uncertainty in the scientific community about whether long-term immunity is possible following an infection.
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Channel 13 Israel reported that a doctor at Ramat Gan’s Sheba Medical Center first came down with the virus in April, according to the Times of Israel, while she tested negative for COVID-19 in May and June. Now, after reportedly coming in contact with an infected individual, she has again tested positive.
While doctors have observed antibodies in many patients immediately following the disease, there is concern that they may not last long in the body, or that some patients may not naturally develop antibodies at all.
Unfortunately, issues with testing and inaccurate results have made the study of antibodies and immunity all the more elusive, with studies pointing to a false negative rate of at least 20 percent and up to 38 percent.
Last month, a pair of studies revealed that patients may quickly lose antibodies they produced during their battle with the coronavirus, within months or weeks of recovery. In a report uploaded to open-access source medRxiv, while awaiting peer review, researchers in Wuhan, China, found that antibodies were undetectable in 10 percent out of almost 1,500 COVID-19 patients, just a few weeks after first signs of the virus. From their findings, they determined that “after SARS-CoV-2 infection, people are unlikely to produce long-lasting protective antibodies against this virus.”
The other paper, published in Nature Medicine, compared antibody levels between 37 asymptomatic coronavirus-positive patients and an equal number of severely symptomatic patients, based in the Wanzhou district in China. After two to three months, 60 percent of the asymptomatic individuals showed detectable levels of antibodies, while 87 percent of those with strong symptoms continued to demonstrate higher levels of antibodies. This suggests that those who do not develop severe illness due to COVID-19 may also be less protected in the future.
The seemingly inconsistent nature of the coronavirus antibodies is, like all things with this disease, uncharted territory. Compare these findings with what doctors know about SARS and MERS — two other types of coronavirus infections whose antibodies are known to linger for potentially a year or more following illness onset.
Earlier this month, White House health adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said “we do not know” how long the coronavirus antibodies can offer defense. He told the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Francis Collins, “With this spike protein that’s being presented in the way that we do it with primes and in some cases boosts, we’re going to assume that there’s a degree of protection, but we have to assume that it’s going to be finite.”
Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said coronavirus therapy “[is] not going to be like the measles vaccine,” which gives lifetime immunity.
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That said, he’s skeptical of recent reports of reinfection, arguing that trace levels of COVID-19 had likely remained in the body all along, regardless of previous negative test results.
“There are no documented cases where people got better and actually got sick again in the sense of virus replicating,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a rare case of an individual who went into remission and relapsed … But Francis, I can say with confidence, that it is very unlikely if it’s a common phenomenon.”