It's Possible For Coronavirus To Reinfect Recovered Patients, Chinese Expert Warns

Dalian, China - 01/30/2020: People queuing up to buy face masks after the arrival of 2019-nCoV. guyue1983/Shutterstock

A doctor from the Chinese Health Commission warns that certain recovered coronavirus patients might be prone to reinfection. However, before you panic, it’s worth stressing that this risk of relapse is true of any infection, not a unique feature of the current coronavirus outbreak. 

"The antibody will be generated; however, in certain individuals, the antibody cannot last that long," Zhan Qingyuan, director of pneumonia prevention and treatment at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, said at a press conference on Friday, reported by CGTN, a Chinese state-owned media outlet.

”For those patients who have been cured, there is a likelihood of a relapse. For cured patients, they should also harness their own health safeguards.”

When the body becomes infected, the immune system produces proteins called antibodies that bind to and neutralize the pathogen. This process needs the antibody to have a specific structure to bind to the particular pathogen it's attempting to quell. If you’ve already been infected by a specific pathogen, your immune system will “remember” the pathogen and effectively have the relevant antibody ready to go, thereby protecting you against another infection.

Despite common knowledge, it is possible to catch the same virus twice. Some pathogens, most notably influenza, are able to mutate extremely rapidly, rendering the previous antibodies partly or totally useless. This is one of the reasons why you are encouraged to get a flu jab annually, as your immunity can become redundant by the time next year’s flu season arrives. 

So, as with any infection, rock-solid lifelong immunity is never guaranteed. However, that is no reason to panic. 

“Certainly some people in any population do not mount a full immune response and may be at repeated risk, but this would be true of any infection they caught, not just the new coronavirus,” Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, told IFLScience. 

“So the generally accepted view would be that once the virus has swept through a population, or that population has been vaccinated, the incidence of disease would fall dramatically and the virus would not be calculating widely. In that case, even still susceptible people would be unlucky to encounter it.”

Many uncertainties still hang over the current outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, which began in December 2019. Just this week, a report in one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals was retracted as it falsely claimed the novel coronavirus can be transmitted by people who don't show any symptoms.

As of 4pm GMT on February 5, there are at least 24,613 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus across the world, over 24,390 of which are in mainland China. There have also been over 494 deaths, the overwhelming majority of which have occurred in mainland China, surpassing the number of people that died in mainland China during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak (349 deaths).

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