Is Coronavirus Reinfection Possible? – The Atlantic

These evasion strategies appear to contribute in making it possible for coronaviruses that trigger acute rhinitis to penetrate the human population regularly, states Jesse Blossom, an evolutionary biologist and virologist at the University of Washington. In December, Blossom’s group published a preprint research study detailing the complex arms race in between human and microorganism: Antibodies that might effectively squelch one variation of a common-cold coronavirus remain in individuals for several years, however battle to extinguish its genetically rejiggered descendants.

“It makes perfect sense—it’s what viruses do,” Oliver Fregoso, a virologist at UCLA, states. “Viruses are going to evolve in a way that [allows] them to continue infecting. Otherwise, they go extinct.”


No part of reinfection is cut-and-dried. Every infection, foreign or familiar, to some level, shows the push and pull in between resistance and viral development—both of which can make a once-familiar opponent appear foreign. Regrettably, “it’s hard to parse out how much is due to you, as the patient, versus the characteristics of the virus,” Blossom states. The majority of people infected by the coronavirus don’t get the chance to measure their immune response, or genetically sequence the virus infecting them, which would be a surefire way to tell whether the pathogen has morphed into something new.

But the more we understand about how these dynamics work, the better equipped we’ll be to tinker with them—and give our own bodies the edge. “We have to be able to explain when things don’t go right,” Ogbunu said. Scientists might be able to more effectively tailor treatments, some perhaps more suited to people with weaker immune systems, others hyper-focused on foiling certain variants of the virus. The same intel could inform the production and distribution of vaccines, which could be reformulated to get ahead of new variants. Understanding the root of most coronavirus reinfections is about prioritizing what’s in our pandemic playbook: shoring up our defense, or hitting the virus hard with the best offense we’ve got.

Sarah Cobey, an immunologist at the University of Chicago, states the past year hasn’t shaken her faith in the human immune system. Some rare individuals have gotten very ill the second time they’ve been contaminated, a few even sicker than the first. But failed or aberrant immunity to the coronavirus is unlikely to be the norm. Most of the reinfections we document going forward will probably involve the virus adopting a new and foreign guise, Cobey says, rather than “something really weird happening with immune memory.”

In many ways, the virus-shift version of repeat infections is the easier one. It’s expected and trackable, with testing and genomic surveillance; it’s haltable, with measures that keep the virus from spreading and lingering in hosts. Encouragingly, none of the variants yet seems capable of completely eluding a typical immune reaction to the OG coronavirus or an OG-based vaccine—which is also very good news. It’s a hint that, by and large, our body immune systems are working as they should. The shots we’ve developed to protect us from the coronavirus will still dial down our risks of getting seriously sick with COVID-19; vaccine makers will update their recipes to account for the versions. People who are hit naturally with one variant, then another, will probably experience gentler symptoms the second time, if they feel ill at all. (Frequent, symptomatic reinfections with the very same variation, by contrast, would anticipate a less rosy future.)

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.