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COVID-19 survivor was reinfected with South African mutation, but it’s actually good news

Published Feb 1st, 2021 10:35PM EST
Coronavirus Reinfection
Image: vladimirhodac/Adobe
  • Israel reported the first case of COVID-19 reinfection with the South African mutation, and the early conclusions are promising.
  • A 57-year-old man who survived his first infection with the novel coronavirus contracted the South African mutation while in Turkey.
  • His second COVID-19 bout was milder, with the man only experiencing a runny nose instead of a full range of symptoms, as was the case during his first infection.
  • The patient also said that none of the family members he came in contact with were infected with the South African strain.

Three coronavirus mutations are currently causing some concern among researchers, including the UK, South African, and Brazilian strains. These SARS-CoV-2 versions are more infectious than their predecessors and could impact the course of the pandemic. According to data available so far, the South African mutation (B.1.351) is the most dangerous of the three, and that’s because it can seemingly avoid neutralizing antibodies from previous infection or monoclonal drugs.

That was an early indication that reinfection with the South African strain might be possible, and now researchers in Israel have now observed the first case of coronavirus reinfection with the South African strain. Thankfully though, the news is much better than expected.

The UK mutation (B.1.1.7) was the most important topic of late-2020, and researchers studied it closely. The highly infectious strain might have a higher mortality rate, a recent study said. But people who had COVID-19 already would not be at increased risk of reinfection, Dr. Anthony Fauci said a few weeks ago. This was also an indication that current coronavirus vaccines will work against B.1.1.7. Experiments that followed proved as much, although those tests were performed in lab settings.

Health experts expect current vaccines to be less effective against the South African strain. Pfizer and BioNTech have conducted experiments against the strains, finding that they work against a common genetic change in the UK and South African strains. Moderna is already working on a booster shot that targets the mutation. Separately, the Johnson & Johnson Phase 3 study was the first to quantify any vaccine’s effectiveness against the South African strain. The researchers found the drug to be 55% effective in the country, compared to 72% efficacy for the US.

Now, a recent case in Israel gives us the first real-life occurrence of infection with the South African strain in a host who already has COVID-19 antibodies.

Ziv Yaffe, 57, returned from Turkey on January 16th and he developed a runny nose by January 23rd. Having survived COVID-19, Yaffe was part of a follow-up research program at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center. He went in for a COVID-19 test and the result was positive. Further investigation showed that he had contracted the South African strain. The man told Channel 12 news that he felt fine this time around, compared with his first COVID-19 bout when he had experienced “all the symptoms.”

“It is the first time that we have a full record of infection, recovery, reinfection, and that the antibodies that he had protected him from the mutation,” Shai Efrati told the station of Yaffe. Efrati is the head of research at Assaf Harofeh. “What we learn is that when there are antibodies, they protect against illness.”

The researchers said it’s too early to conclude that anyone who had COVID-19 will be protected against other mutations if they have antibodies. But Yaffe’s case is “very encouraging.” In addition to feeling fine, Yaffe also said that the family members he had come in contact with during this second reinfection had not caught the virus.

This is the second known South African COVID-19 case in Israel. The UK mutation is spreading wildly in the country, per The Times of Israel. Israel closed air travel and the government is expected to extend lockdowns by another week to curb the rate of infection.

Local experts are worried that the South African strain might impact vaccine efficacy. “We don’t have evidence yet that any of the variants are completely resistant to the vaccine, but there is some preliminary evidence to say that perhaps the effectiveness of the vaccine is somewhat less against the South African variant,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said in a statement on Sunday. Alroy-Preis is the head of public health services at the Health Ministry.

Israel happens to be in the best position to gauge the effectiveness of vaccines against the new strain because more than 3 million people there have received the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. More than half have also received the second dose. No other country managed to vaccinate nearly 30% of its people. Israel might be the first country to reach herd immunity if inoculations continue at this rate, and it might have the first conclusions on vaccine efficacy against mutations, especially the South African strain.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.