A woman in Belgium died in March after contracting two novel coronavirus strains at once, researchers just revealed. The 90-year-old’s double infection, which is being presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, is believed to be the first documented case of its kind.
According to a press release, the woman’s medical history was “unremarkable.” The woman, who lived alone and received nursing care at home, was admitted to a Belgian hospital after having a series of falls. She tested positive for COVID-19 on the day she went to the hospital and was not vaccinated against the virus.
The European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases said the woman had “no signs of respiratory distress” and “good oxygen saturation” at first. However, she developed “rapidly worsening respiratory symptoms” and died five days later.
The woman’s COVID-19 test was analyzed for variants of concern, and researchers discovered that she had been infected with two different strains: B.1.1.7 (Alpha), which was first detected in the U.K., and B.1.351 (Beta), which was first detected in South Africa.
“Both these variants were circulating in Belgium at the time, so it is likely that the lady was co-infected with different viruses from two different people. Unfortunately, we don’t know how she became infected,” lead author and molecular biologist Anne Vankeerberghen from the OLV Hospital in Aalst, Belgium, said in the press release.
Is it common to contract two strains of the novel coronavirus at once?
Vankeerberghen points out that this is thought to be “one of the first documented cases of co-infection with two SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.”
“It is not something that is a very common phenomenon,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
However, it’s possible that this happens more than researchers have detected in the past. Doctors would only know if someone has a so-called “co-infection” with different coronavirus variants if they do genetic sequencing, Dr. Adalja points out.
But how can someone contract two strains at once? At a very basic level, it’s “definitely bad luck,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.
From a scientific standpoint, contracting one strain of a virus doesn’t keep you from becoming infected with another strain, even at the same time. This phenomenon isn’t unique to COVID-19 and is known to happen with influenza, Dr. Adalja says.
Sometimes having two forms of the same virus can actually “blunt” the impact on the patient, Dr. Adalja says. Other times, it can make things worse, as your immune system can only handle so many pathogens at once.
Should you be worried about double coronavirus infections?
In the case of the woman in Belgium, it’s unclear if having a double infection directly caused her death, particularly because older people have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection to begin with. “I would note that she was 90,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “She may have had a very suppressed immune system that may have set her up as more susceptible to infection.”
For now, the overall risk appears to be low. However, Vankeerberghen pointed out that the “global occurrence of this phenomenon” is probably under-reported due to limited testing.
That said, if you’re fully vaccinated, your level of protection will be higher than developing natural immunity. Dr. Adalja says “being vaccinated makes these types of rare phenomenon a non-issue.”
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