Officials with the World Health Organization said in a press briefing Friday that there are some reports from South Africa that indicate that people who had previously been infected with COVID-19 are being reinfected with variant strains.
“We're now getting reports of people getting reinfected with a new variant of the virus and there have been some initial reports from South Africa suggesting people who've had prior infection could get infected again,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said in a press briefing on Friday.
However, Swaminathan said that so far, it appears that those who have been reinfected with variant strains have avoided a severe case of the virus the second time around.
“It's a similar story with vaccine really; we're learning about protection against vaccines and one thing that's clear is that the majority of clinical trials that have reported out so far; there's a clear protection against severe disease which needs hospitalization and death,” Swaminathan said.
The 501V2 variant of COVID-19 — a variant of the disease first detected in South Africa — is one of several variants of the virus that are currently spreading throughout the world. While there is some concern that COVID-19 vaccines are less effective against those variants, Swaminathan cautioned that the variants shouldn’t be a cause for panic.
Swaminathan noted that while the vaccines have seen a dip in efficacy against the 501V2 variant, there have been no hospitalizations or deaths reported among those who had contracted the strain but had already been vaccinated.
“Vaccines are protecting against getting severely ill even though they may not protect completely against getting infected, or mild disease,” she said. “So at this point, the risk-benefit of using these vaccines of course is much more towards benefit than risk.”
Swaminathan also encouraged anyone who has either contracted the virus or been vaccinated to continue to wear masks and social distance, noting that it’s may still be possible to contract spread the disease without knowing it.
“Until we know more about this is it important for people even after vaccination to take precautions, to wear a mask, to wash hands, to maintain the physical distancing,” Swaminathan said. “Even if you have an asymptomatic infection, you're not going to get sick because you've had the vaccine. But, you could still carry the virus in the nose and spread it to others.”