Woman said hospitalized again with COVID-19 a month after recovering

Jisr az-Zarqa resident, 45, was discharged last month after testing negative twice; similar cases around world have sparked speculation about reinfection, accuracy of virus tests

Magen David Adom medics wearing protective clothing with a patient outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on April 30, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medics wearing protective clothing with a patient outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on April 30, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A 45-year-old woman was reportedly hospitalized on Saturday at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera with a fever and chest pain and tested positive for the coronavirus — a month after she contracted the virus and was discharged from the same hospital after she recovered.

Despite many similar reports of reinfections, primarily in South Korea, and the World Health Organization (WHO) saying last month that there was no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected against a second infection, the consensus among most experts is that these reports are due to problems with coronavirus tests.

The woman, from the Arab town of Jisr az-Zarqa, arrived at Hillel Yaffe hospital in early April and tested positive for the virus, Channel 12 reported Sunday.

She was hospitalized from April 6 to  April 11, and was sent home after two tests came back negative, the report said.

The network theorized that a plausible explanation was that she never truly recovered from the virus, saying the test had a 70 percent accuracy rate and that she could have gotten a false negative twice in a row.

However, that would still not explain how the woman initially displayed symptoms of the disease, stopped having them and then started displaying them again after a month.

A doctor holds a container used to collect a sample from a patient during a demonstration of a drive-through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) swab test for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Fujisawa in Kanagawa prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, Japan, on April 27, 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)

This is not the first incident of its kind in Israel. Last month, an 86-year-old man in northern Israel, who was informed he had recovered from the coronavirus, was hospitalized again a week later in serious condition with COVID-19.

Some experts around the world, including a senior official at the World Health Organization, have argued that reports of reinfected patients have been false positives, with the tests picking up on dead virus fragments.

Director of the Genetics Institute at University College London Francois Ballou has said that a plausible explanation for those cases is that the virus never completely disappeared in the first place and remains — dormant and asymptomatic — as a “chronic infection,” like herpes.

For some viral diseases such as measles, overcoming the sickness confers immunity for life.

But for RNA-based viruses such as SARS-COV-2 — the scientific name for the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease — it takes about three weeks to build up a sufficient quantity of antibodies, and even then they may provide protection for only a few months.

At least that is the theory. In reality, the new coronavirus has thrown up one surprise after another, to the point where virologists and epidemiologists are sure of very little.

“We do not have the answers to that — it’s an unknown,” Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Emergencies Program, said in a press conference this week when asked how long a recovered COVID-19 patient would have immunity.

“We would expect that to be a reasonable period of protection, but it is very difficult to say with a new virus — we can only extrapolate from other coronaviruses, and even that data is quite limited.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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