Recovered Covid patients have been reinfected with new virus strains, WHO says

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A lab technician uses a single channel pipette dropper to test material during Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test processing at a laboratory in the Dunkeld suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

Waldo Swiegers | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Preliminary reports from South Africa show people who have recovered from Covid-19 have been reinfected with a new, more contagious variant of the virus, World Health Organization officials said at a press briefing Friday.

The good news, however, is that the vaccines developed to guard against the virus appear to reduce severity of illness in those who do develop Covid-19, even if it doesn’t completely protect them from infection, said WHO’s chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan.

“The [vaccine] trials that have been done so far in South Africa as well as in Brazil with different candidates have shown complete protection against severe disease and hospitalization and death. There hasn’t been a single case reported in any of the trials,” she said.

Vaccination may also decrease the spread of new Covid variants, according to WHO.

“There are reports now that if you have the vaccine and you get infected, the viral load is much lower. So the chances of infecting others may be lower,” said Swaminathan.

Prior Covid infection produces antibodies and cell mediated immunity that are thought to prevent reinfection, scientists have found. Vaccination also helps individuals build protection against the virus.

But researchers continue to study the extent to which prior infection and vaccination protect against the new, more infectious variants of the coronavirus.

Increased vaccination efforts alone are likely insufficient in managing the spread of the coronavirus strain originating in the U.K., Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told CNBC Thursday. Gottlieb said a combination of incoming warmer weather and ramped up vaccinations could help contain the variant.

Swaminathan at the Friday WHO briefing stressed the importance of vaccinated individuals to continue taking precautions like mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing to control the spread of the virus.

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