After the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, people started wondering whether they could get the disease twice. With the discovery of coronavirus variants, the question has additional urgency, with everyone wondering this: If you’ve had Covid already, are you still susceptible to getting sick from one of the variants?
Let’s look at what’s been happening overall, first. “Reinfections are rare,” says Richard Webby, Ph.D., an infectious diseases expert at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
That’s not to say they’re impossible. Although there’s no definitive tracking system for it, studies here and there have found a few cases of reinfection. For instance, data published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on February 26 showed that five people in a skilled nursing facility who’d tested positive for Covid-19 last summer tested positive again in the fall—even though tests in between came back negative. The report allows as to how some false positive test results may have been possible, and samples weren’t tested for which strains were present, so there’s no way to know whether the exact same virus variant was responsible for the likely reinfections.
How long are you immune, and if you did get Covid again, would it be as bad?
If reinfection were to happen, the question is also open about how long you might have between the initial infection and getting it again (in other words, how long your antibodies might protect you from reinfection). There’s also the issue of how severe or not Covid-19 would be the second time around.
“The short answer is that we still don’t know,” says Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D., a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University whose research includes studying infectious disease transmission and outbreaks. Scientists like Dr. Shaman are currently asking big questions about this virus, including “is this going to be something like chickenpox that you get once, and then there can be shingles years later, and that’s it. Or is it going to be something like seasonal flu, which we get over and over again and we’re going to have to continually deal with?” And then there are concerns about what happens to the virus over time. “Does it turn into a common respiratory pathogen which we get all the time but really it’s not so disruptive that we change the way we do things and we change our economy, or is it going to be something worse?”
Reluctant to prognosticate too much, he says “I’d say I don’t know, but if you really pressed me and said ‘choose one,’ I’d say I would be that it’s going to be milder and less likely to have an individual suffer severe complications upon repeat infections. But I just don’t know. There are no guarantees here.”
Can you get sick from a variant if you’ve already had Covid-19?
The coronavirus variants that we know about that are currently circulating have some mutations in their genetic codes and some deletions. It’s not clear yet exactly what the chances are that you could get sick from a coronavirus variant if you’re already had Covid-19.
It’s probably happening to a certain degree, but getting it again probably isn’t the main reason infection numbers go up. On how likely you are to be infected with a variant after you’ve had Covid already: “We don’t have firm numbers on that,” says virologist Andy Pekosz, Ph.D., professor and vice-chair of the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. But he points to cases in South Africa and Brazil, where variants have been detected in large numbers. “We think reinfection may be more likely with variants that evade immune responses, but we don’t have a clear picture of exactly how frequently that’s going to be occurring,” he adds.
After your first Covid bout, your immune system should help protect you to a certain extent, suggests Dr. Webby. “My feeling is that even though you may well get infected by a variant even if you have been infected before, the immunity from the first infection should protect you from severe disease,” he says. Your immune system targets a number of different parts of the virus, he explains, and the variants have only changed a few bits of it. So you still should have some effective immunologic ammunition. “So yes, the variants have changed enough that they may be able to reinfect you, but not enough to where they will be completely hidden from your immune response,” he says.
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