New variants raise worry about COVID-19 virus reinfection

Evidence is mounting that having COVID-19 may not protect against getting infected again with some of the new variants. People also can get second infections with earlier versions of the coronavirus if they mounted a weak defense the first time, new research suggests.

How long immunity lasts from natural infection is one of the big questions in the pandemic. Scientists still think reinfections are fairly rare and usually less serious than initial ones, but recent developments around the world have raised concerns.

In South Africa, a vaccine study found new infections with a variant in 2% of people who previously had an earlier version of the virus.

In Brazil, several similar cases were documented with a new variant there. Researchers are exploring whether reinfections help explain a recent surge in the city of Manaus, where three-fourths of residents were thought to have been previously infected.

In the United States, a study found that 10% of Marine recruits who had evidence of prior infection and repeatedly tested negative before starting basic training were later infected again. That work was done before the new variants began to spread, said one study leader, Dr. Stuart Sealfon of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

“Previous infection does not give you a free pass,” he said. “A substantial risk of reinfection remains.”

Reinfections pose a public health concern, not just a personal one. Even in cases where reinfection causes no symptoms or just mild ones, people might still spread the virus. That’s why health officials are urging vaccination as a longer-term solution and encouraging people to wear masks, keep physical distance and wash their hands frequently.

“It’s an incentive to do what we have been saying all along: to vaccinate as many people as we can and to do so as quickly as we can,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert.

“My looking at the data suggests … and I want to underline suggests … the protection induced by a vaccine may even be a little better” than natural infection, Fauci said.

Doctors in South Africa began to worry when they saw a surge of cases late last year in areas where blood tests suggested many people had already had the virus.

Until recently, all indications were “that previous infection confers protection for at least nine months,” so a second wave should have been “relatively subdued,” said Dr. Shabir Madhi of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Scientists discovered a new version of the virus that’s more contagious and less susceptible to certain treatments. It now causes more than 90% of new cases in South Africa and has spread to 40 countries including the United States.

Madhi led a study testing Novavax’s vaccine and found it less effective against the new variant. The study also revealed that infections with the new variant were just as common among people who had COVID-19 as those who had not.

“What this basically tells us, unfortunately, is that past infection with early variants of the virus in South Africa does not protect” against the new one, he said.

In Brazil, a spike in hospitalizations in Manaus in January caused similar worry and revealed a new variant that’s also more contagious and less vulnerable to some treatments.

“Reinfection could be one of the drivers of these cases,” said Dr. Ester Sabino of the University of Sao Paulo. She wrote an article in the journal Lancet on possible explanations. “We have not yet been able to define how frequently this is happening,” she said.

California scientists also are investigating whether a recently identified variant may be causing reinfections or a surge of cases there.

“We’re looking at that now,” seeking blood samples from past cases, said Jasmine Plummer, a researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Dr. Howard Bauchner, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said it soon would report on what he called “the Los Angeles variant.”

New variants were not responsible for the reinfections seen in the study of Marines — it was done before the mutated viruses emerged, said Sealfon, who led that work with the Naval Medical Research Center. Other findings from the study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine; the new ones on reinfection are posted on a research website.

The study involved several thousand Marine recruits who tested negative for the virus three times during a two-week supervised military quarantine before starting basic training.

Among the 189 whose blood tests indicated they had been infected in the past, 19 tested positive again during the six weeks of training. That’s far less than those without previous infection — “almost half of them became infected at the basic training site,” Sealfon said.

The amount and quality of antibodies that previously infected Marines had upon arrival was tied to their risk of getting the virus again. No reinfections caused serious illness, but that does not mean the recruits were not at risk of spreading infection to others, Sealfon said.

“It does look like reinfection is possible. I don’t think we fully understand why that is and why immunity has not developed” in those cases, said an immunology expert with no role in the study, E. John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Natural infections can leave you with a range of immunity” while vaccines consistently induce high levels of antibodies, Wherry said.

“I am optimistic that our vaccines are doing a little bit better.”

Zinc, Vitamin C have no impact on coronavirus symptoms

Zinc and Vitamin C fell short in a clinical trial after researchers found they made no significant difference in easing the duration of coronavirus symptoms.

Findings from the Cleveland Clinic were published in JAMA Network on Friday, drawing on results from April 27 to Oct. 14, when 214 coronavirus patients in Ohio and Florida outpatient care sites were given either 50 milligrams of high-dose zinc to be taken at night, 8,000 milligrams of Vitamin C to be taken several times throughout the day with meals, a combination of the two or standard care over a 10-day period.

These patients, averaging about 45 years old, were at home, and answered virtual surveys about their symptoms, any adverse effects, hospitalizations and other medications. Any patient that required hospitalization was considered a treatment failure, researchers said. Data shows most of the patients were experiencing mild symptoms, with very few suffering severe cases.

Patients reached a 50% reduction in symptoms after 6.7 days with usual care, 5.5 days when treated with Vitamin C, 5.9 days with zinc and 5.5 days for the combo treatment.

“These findings suggest that treatment with zinc, ascorbic acid, or both does not affect SARS-CoV-2 symptoms,” study authors wrote.

The scientists ended the trial early because the supplements weren’t having any effect. Study authors noted four serious events, including three deaths due to COVID-19, not believed to be tied to the treatment. More patients receiving Vitamin C reported side effects like nausea, diarrhea and cramps.

The study authors said there has been “inconsistent” evidence for zinc and Vitamin C as a beneficial treatment for colds.

The Cleveland Clinic study authors noted that zinc is known to help cells fight infection and boost the immune system, and Vitamin C “is an antioxidant that may play a role in immune response,” though the role of Vitamin C and zinc in treating coronavirus is less clear.

“However, based on the current study, these supplements cannot be recommended to reduce symptom morbidity in such patients,” the study reads. “High-dose zinc gluconate, ascorbic acid, or both supplements did not reduce SARS-CoV-2 symptoms. Most consumers of ascorbic acid and zinc are taking significantly lower doses of these supplements, so demonstrating that even high-dose ascorbic acid and zinc had no benefit suggests clear lack of efficiency

Coronavirus less likely to infect glasses wearers, study suggests

Good news, glasses wearers: Your spectacles may offer you some extra protection from the novel coronavirus, according to the findings of a new study. 

In a report published earlier this month on the pre-print site medRxiv, researchers said that those who wear glasses at least eight hours during the day are less likely to contract the novel disease because they touch their eyes less frequently than those who do not wear glasses. 

COVID-19 mainly spreads when a sick person coughs, sneezes, or even talks, with the infectious particles posing a risk to healthy persons should they breathe those infectious particles in (hence the importance of mask-wearing and social distancing measures). However, the virus can also spread through the membranes protecting your eyes, namely the conjunctiva.

Indeed, “touching and rubbing of the eyes with contaminated hands may be a significant route of infection for SARS-CoV-2 virus,” the researchers wrote. 

CORONAVIRUS LINGERED IN WOMAN’S EYES LONG AFTER IT CLEARED FROM HER NOSE, STUDY REVEALED

For the study, the researchers surveyed just over 300 people who were hospitalized due to COVID-19 in India. The patients, who ranged in age from 10 to 80, were asked about their glasses-wearing habits. About 60 patients were identified as “long-time glasses-wearers,” per the report. 

By the end, the researchers concluded that those who wear glasses were two to three less likely to contract COVID-19 compared to those who do not wear glasses. 

“This present study showed that the risk of COVID-19 was 2-3 times less in spectacles-wearing population than the population not using spectacles. [The] protective role of the spectacles was found statistically significant if those were used for [a] long period of the day,” or more than eight hours, they concluded. 

The findings bolster previous research done on this topic. In a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology in September, for instance, Chinese researchers also found those who wear eyeglasses for extended daily periods may be less susceptible to COVID-19.

South African coronavirus variant detected in New York resident

New York has confirmed a case of the South African coronavirus variant in a Nassau County resident.

The case was discovered through sequencing at a city-based commercial lab, and no other details were given in an announcement posted Sunday, such as the patient’s condition, travel history or when the case was confirmed.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo noted a drop in statewide positivity and hospitalizations, allowing a further push on reopenings, but amid news of the variant, urged residents to double down on mitigation measures like face masks, hand hygiene and social distancing.

“…With the discovery of a case of the South African variant in the state, it’s more important than ever for New Yorkers to stay vigilant, wear masks, wash hands and stay socially distanced.” Cuomo said, in part, in a statement posted Sunday. “We are in a race right now — between our ability to vaccinate and these variants which are actively trying to proliferate — and we will only win that race if we stay smart and disciplined.”

The news follows a separate announcement from last Monday, when the state confirmed the variant in a patient who was transferred to a city hospital from Connecticut. At the time, Cuomo said that there was no evidence of further spread pertaining to the case.

Several mutated versions of the virus have caused significant concern among experts because they have shown to diminish vaccine efficacy, including variants first identified in South Africa, B.1.351, and the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7. These strains involve changes along the surface spike proteins that allow the pathogen to bind more tightly to healthy cells. 

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the B.1.351 variant has been reported in 22 cases across ten states, with 44 states reporting over 1,660 cases of the B.1.1.7 strain, which has been projected to become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

Several companies are exploring variant booster shots in a bid for more protection against the strains. Both Pfizer and Moderna have said protection against the B.1.351 variant in particular remains unclear. Studies have suggested the variant dropped the Pfizer vaccine’s neutralization power by about two-thirds, while Moderna saw a six-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies.