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Friday, July 30, 2021

Explained: When two Covid-19 variants infect someone at the same time

The woman, who got infected in March this year, was found to be carrying both the Alpha and Beta variants (first detected in UK and South Africa respectively). She died five days after being hospitalised.

Written by Amitabh Sinha
Pune | Updated: July 20, 2021 10:28:16 am
People sit in a waiting room after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium. (AP Photo)

A 90-year-old Belgian woman has been revealed to be the first documented case of a person being infected with two different variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the same time. The woman, who got infected in March this year, was found to be carrying both the Alpha and Beta variants (first detected in UK and South Africa respectively). She died five days after being hospitalised.

Her unique case was discussed at the annual European Congress on Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, according to a Reuters report.

It’s not surprising…

Such cases of “double infection”, in which someone is found infected with two variants of the virus at the same time, might be rare but it is not at all surprising, said experts The Indian Express spoke to. Infections from multiple persons within a short period of time is neither impossible, nor unheard of.

“If somebody is exposed to more than one infected person, he or she can get the infection from any or all of them. There is nothing that prevents such an eventuality,” said V S Chauhan, former director of the Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

“The virus takes some time to multiply inside the body and affect all the cells. Till that happens, some cells can be available to host the virus from another source. The immunity against the pathogen takes some time, a few days, to be built. During that time period, it is entirely possible to get infected from more than one person,” Chauhan said.

Chauhan said such cases of “double infection” were very common among HIV patients.

… but it’s very rare

The probability of such a thing happening is low, mainly because the infection does not get passed on at every instance of interaction between people. An infected person does not infect everyone who he or she comes in contact with. Therefore, a person meeting more than one infected person during a short period of time, and getting the virus from all of them, has a statistically lower probability.

Also, most of the time, it would not be evident whether a person has got the infection from one person, or more than one.

“The case of the Belgian woman is only the first one that has been detected. But I am sure many more such occurrences would have happened across the world, and may be happening even now. One cannot know unless you do genome analysis of the virus sample from the infected person. Even then, if the multiple infections are from the same variant of the virus, the differences in the genome sequences are very minor, and can easily get overlooked,” said Shahid Jameel, director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at the Ashoka University.

“In this case, the person was infected with two different variants, and got picked up. In most cases, it would not be that easy unless researchers are actively looking for it. There is far lesser probability of a person getting infected with multiple variants at the same time,” said Jameel.

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No cause for alarm

Multiple infections at the same time does not affect the condition of the patient in any way, even when the variants are different, as in the case of the Belgian woman. All the variants affect the patients’ health in a similar way; therefore, it doesn’t matter whether the virus has come from one source, or more than one.

“The severity of the disease caused by the virus depends on the infected person’s health and immunity, and the lethality of the virus. It does not depend on the number of sources the virus has come from. So, the fact that the person has received the infection from two or more people would not make him or her more sick,” Chauhan said.

Jameel said the case of the Belgian woman might be an interesting revelation, but not a cause of any fresh worry. “I don’t think there is any new cause of concern. The Belgian case does not present any fresh threat to anyone. There is no reason for people to feel alarmed,” he said.

Additionally, all the current vaccines have been found to be nearly equally effective against the different variants of the coronavirus.

“The medicines and treatment for all the variants are the same. So, what is effective against one variant is effective against the other as well. The same is true of vaccines. Right now, none of the variants are truly escape mutants. In the future, if a mutation arises that is able to escape the immunity built in the human body, then maybe, there will be some cause of worry. But not right now,” Chauhan said.

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