I have the feeling that this news may wind up slamming the brakes on a lot of the optimism about vaccines and new COVID-19 treatments that have been making the rounds lately. Doctors at the University of Hong Kong have concluded that a patient who was confirmed as being infected with the novel coronavirus and mildly symptomatic back in March came down with the disease for a second time this month. There are some complicating factors in his story that will likely need to be taken into consideration, but the overall message from that medical center is clear. If you can survive the disease once and then catch it again in that short of a period of time, it sticks a major pin in the entire plan we have for combatting this plague, whether you’re counting on herd immunity, a viable vaccine or anything else. (NBC News)

A man in Hong Kong has become the first confirmed patient to be infected with the coronavirus a second time, according to researchers at the University of Hong Kong.

The finding suggests that some patients who recover from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, may have only short-lived immunity from reinfection. The case will likely also be significant for scientists who have been working on treatments using antibodies from recovered coronavirus patients, and those who have been scrambling to develop a safe and effective vaccine.

The 33-year-old man in Hong Kong developed mild symptoms in late March when he was first diagnosed with COVID-19, the researchers at the University of Hong Kong wrote in a study that has been accepted for publication by the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. The patient was hospitalized March 29, but his symptoms subsided and he was discharged April 14, according to the study.

We’ve heard rumors of this before, but they frequently involved people who were asymptomatic but produced a positive result when being tested. Given the high number of false positives we’ve seen with certain test kits, it was still entirely possible that the infected patients hadn’t actually had the disease originally, so there was reason to be optimistic about a future vaccine. That’s not the case with this man. He developed symptoms and tested positive on multiple checks. So he now appears to have contracted COVID twice.

If this is the real situation we’re dealing with, blood plasma treatments such as the one the President announced the other day aren’t going to be as much of a path to salvation as we’d hoped. Or at least they won’t produce the long-term immunity we need to see if we’re really going to beat this thing down into manageable numbers. The same may apply to the vaccines currently in testing. If they could at least last for a year we could probably deal with a situation where everyone gets vaccinated on an annual basis the same way we do with the flu. But if it’s going to wear off in as little as three months, that’s not a very good scenario.

But as I mentioned above, there are a couple of complicating factors in this patient’s story. First of all, he originally contracted the disease in Hong Kong. But this time he tested positive shortly after returning from a trip to Spain, via the United Kingdom. The second fact is that he is, at least thus far, still asymptomatic. Both of these factors could be important and make the news a bit less bad.

We already know that the virus has been mutating, potentially at an alarming rate. The variety that hit New York City so hard appears to have stopped off in Italy for a while before coming to our shores. It appeared to be significantly different than the home-grown Chinese version that hit the west coast. If the two flavors are significantly different, immunity to one may not necessarily translate into immunity for the other. But people who aren’t traveling around constantly are probably less likely to run into more than one mutation so any immunity acquired via vaccine or personal exposure may prove more resilient. (Fingers crossed.)

The second factor may play into the history I already alluded to above. Until he begins showing some symptoms or flunks a few more tests, it’s still possible that he’s producing a false positive. That would put the double infection scenario back on the shelf, at least for the time being. Still, this is one story we’ll want to keep an eye on. If all of our efforts to either develop herd immunity or produce a widely available, effective vaccine go down the tubes, the “new normal” is going to be with us for a very long time indeed.