Oct. 14, 2020 — An 89-year-old woman from the Netherlands has become the first person known to die after catching COVID-19 a second time.
It’s unclear how representative her case may be. The woman was undergoing chemotherapy for blood cancer. The treatment is known to lower the immune system’s ability to function.
During her first bout with COVID-19, she was hospitalized with fever and severe cough. After 5 days, her symptoms eased and she was discharged. About 2 months later, and just 2 days after getting a chemotherapy treatment, she developed a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.
Blood tests taken on days 4 and 6 of her infection detected no coronavirus antibodies. Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system that bind to a virus, preventing it from docking onto cells. Her second infection with COVID-19 was more severe, and she died about 2 weeks later.
Gene tests found slight differences in the makeup of the viruses that caused her first and second infections, suggesting she had caught COVID-19 twice.
How long natural immunity against COVID-19 may last is an open question. A recent study from Iceland found that antibodies to coronavirus don’t seem to decline for at least 4 months after infection. Studies of other kinds of seasonal coronaviruses have shown that people can get reinfected with those within 6 months, and more commonly after about a year.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., a 25-year-old man from Nevada and a 42-year-old man in Virginia experienced second bouts of COVID-19 about 2 months after they tested positive the first time. Gene tests show both men had two slightly different strains of the virus, suggesting that they caught the infection twice.
Researchers say these are the first documented cases of COVID-19 reinfection in the U.S. About two dozen other cases of COVID-19 reinfection have been reported around the globe, from Hong Kong, Belgium, the Netherlands, India, and Ecuador. A third U.S. case, in a 60-year-old in Washington, has been reported but hasn’t yet been peer reviewed.