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UK government scientists warn COVID-19 reinfections 'to be expected'

According to a paper by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, released with a batch of documents by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on Friday, it remains unclear at what point recovered people become vulnerable to reinfection but the prospect of reinfections does exist based on human response to other kinds of coronaviruses, such as those behind flu and common cold.

PTI | London | Updated: 18-10-2020 15:47 IST | Created: 18-10-2020 15:42 IST
UK government scientists warn COVID-19 reinfections 'to be expected'
Representative Picture. Image Credit: Pxhere

The UK government's senior scientific advisers have warned that reinfections with COVID-19 are "to be expected" as the novel coronavirus spreads and that the timeframe between each infection may be "relatively short". According to a paper by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, released with a batch of documents by the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on Friday, it remains unclear at what point recovered people become vulnerable to reinfection but the prospect of reinfections does exist based on human response to other kinds of coronaviruses, such as those behind flu and common cold. It, therefore, throws the concept of any long-term immunity from COVID-19 without a viable vaccine into serious doubt.

"Based on knowledge of other coronaviruses, reinfection is to be expected, although at present the point at which an individual is likely to be susceptible to reinfection is not known," notes the paper. "In cases that have begun to be reported, the time to reinfection in an individual has been relatively short. Where this is the case, genomics is required to demonstrate that the virus from the two infections is not the same, providing evidence to rule out recrudescence," it reads.

The document reports an apparent case of reinfection by a different SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) variant, 20 weeks after an initial confirmed infection in a 33-year-old male Hong Kong resident. He may have picked up his second infection when he passed through the UK in August on his way home from Spain. Although the strain that caused the second infection was predominantly circulating in the UK at the time, it may have been exported to Spain at an earlier date, the geneticists believe. "If, as in the case of the individual in Hong Kong, reinfected individuals are asymptomatic, then it is imperative that work is undertaken – including a genomics component – to identify if these asymptomatic individuals are likely to be infectious. Clearly, if reinfections are both asymptomatic and infectious, this could pose challenges for any symptoms-based measures (eg. requesting a test, self-isolating) used to try and limit/control the pandemic," the paper notes.

The paper is part of a series of documents and SAGE meeting minutes released as part of the government's efforts to reflect transparency in its decision-making process for the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The UK is currently under varying levels of high or very high alert restrictions as the number of infections continues an upward trend. Another 16,171 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the country this weekend, with 150 more people having died. This takes the total number of coronavirus cases in the UK to 705,428 and the death toll to 43,579.


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