By Marion Ndeta, Humanitarian Communicator
Bev was among the first 100 COVID-19 positive cases in Kenya.
A member of the cabin crew of an international airline, she had just arrived from an international assignment. Upon landing, the travelers were informed that the Kenya government had made mandatory the quarantine and mandatory testing of all arriving passengers. “That wasn’t a big deal for me. I was so sure of myself. I was clean!” Bev affirms.
With others, the travelers were herded into a government quarantine facility, and the samples taken as scheduled. “I was in my best of health. But I still couldn’t help the anxiety. It was the longest two days of my life! For me it was about having this done with so I could rejoin my family,” she says.
Day three after the test, on her way to dinner, she met a team of the Ministry of Health officials. “They asked everyone to go back to their rooms.” She obeyed. “Walking back, I heard a male voice behind me say, “By the way, we were coming to your room.” I knew that was it.”
World Health Organisation (WHO), defines re-infection as a period when a person has been infected (got sick) once, recovered, and then later became infected again. According to Dr Masika, “reinfection is not likely to occur before three months, but that does not mean it can’t.” He added that “there is also reinfection where one turns positive, then negative then positive again during the same course of illness.”
The matter of COVID-19 reinfection is still under investigation, and observers disagree. A spot-check on social media, especially postings with the hashtags #COVID19Immunity and #COVID19NaturalImmunity, revealed contradicting opinions on the matter, almost turning it into “who can speak the loudest” kind of contest.
One of the avid discussants of the subject, Renee Hoenderkamp (whose Twitter handle is @DrHoenderkamp), suggested that COVID-19 survivors are protected from subsequent infections due to developed antibodies after the first infection. In one of her tweets, where she champions herd immunity, she states, “Why oh why are we testing students? What a waste of resource. We should be using these for care homes. . . . Ridiculous.”
Hoenderkamp, who has 5,695 followers, frequently comments on COVID19 immunity. Hoenderkamp is described by the www.aestheticsjournal.com as a general practitioner registrar based in London, with “a special interest in aesthetics and women’s health.” The site further credits her as the founder of the Non Surgical Clinic. Hoenderkamp’s tweets and articles promote the idea that people can obtain immunity naturally and that restrictive public health protocols are counterproductive. The fight against COVID-19 will be complicated further if most if not all of her followers buy her line of thought (which is not backed by science) and retweet them to their own with the larger public.
In her LinkedIn account, Hoenderkamp is identified as “a British doctor, Radio and TV presenter and medical writer based in North London.” On the website www.nonsurgicalclinic.co.uk, she is described as the clinic’s lead doctor, who carries “out all of the injectable consultations and procedures.” My email through an address on the nonsurgical clinic website to Hoenderkamp, seeking her firsthand reaction to her online opinion to the subject of COVID-19 reinfection, was not unanswered.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, M.D. (Kentucky) entered the fray by tweeting that as a COVID-19 survivor he is immune to future infection and thus doesn’t need a vaccine. This drew responses casting aspersions about his qualifications and knowledge of science and questioning his knowledge how about viruses like the novel COVID-19 works.
In an opinion piece in the Courier-Journal (“Rand Paul: The science proves people with natural immunity should skip COVID vaccines,” May 29, 2021), Paul, an ophthalmologist, adamantly stated that “vaccines are a replacement for natural immunity. . . . I choose to follow the science with COVID, rather than submit to fear-mongering.”
Other herd immunity and natural immunity crusaders have joined the discourse,comparing SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to those that cause chickenpox and measles. Sen. Paul argued in his opinion piece that “in fact, natural immunity from measles confers lifelong immunity and the vaccine wanes over a few decades.”
What is herd immunity?
As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), “ ‘herd immunity,’ also known as ‘population immunity,’ is the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection.” In relation to COVID-19, however, WHO objects to the “allowing a disease to spread through any segment of the population, as this would result in unnecessary cases and deaths,” as a strategy to achieve population immunity (https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/herd-immunity-lockdowns-and-covid-19).
“Herd immunity” crusaders are championing protection against COVID-19 through exposing populations to the pathogen that causes the disease, a concept both WHO and CDC have rejected. According to Hoenderkamp, “If they had let students mix on campus when it was present they would all be immune now instead of overwhelming the testing system.”
Lending his voice to the reinfection debate, Dr. John Drake, a professor of science specializing in data science of ecology and epidemiology at the University of Georgia, in his article “Covid-19 and the Science of Reinfection” (Forbes, March 25, 2021) concurs with the herd immunity crusaders, saying that “SARS-CoV-2 stimulates the human immune system.” Drake, who prides himself in doing “science that matters to people, places, and the planet,” states that the stimulation of the human immune system “typically confers ‘acquired immunity’–the amazing ability to fight off future attacks of the same or closely related pathogen.” He cautions, however, that even though the virus that causes COVID-19 induces acquired immunity, reinfection with SARS-CoV-2 is possible. Drake shares immense knowledge regarding the novel COVID-19 pandemic onhis website daphnia.ecology.uga.edu/drakelab.
Prof. Walter Jaoko, a medical microbiology specialist at the University of Nairobi, explains that when one gets COVID-19 from infection by SARS-Cov-2 and recovers, one develops some form of protection generated by the body’s immune responses. “However, this protection lasts for a variable duration; that is, in some people it lasts for a few weeks while in some it lasts for months,” he adds.
He confirms that the partial immunity response protects an individual from being reinfected by COVID-19 for some time, but this wanes, after which one can get re-infected. Though there are no tangible statistics about reinfections, Jaoko confirmed that “several people have had re-infections since the pandemic.” Jaoko’s sentiments coincide with CDC’s, that “cases of reinfection with COVID-19 have been reported, but remain rare.”
Therefore, as shared by Bev and as clear from the experts, COVID-19 reinfection is possible. There is no telling how severe either bout may be, but Dr. Masika explains that more research is required to reveal the extent of both the first and subsequent infections.
Meanwhile, CDC continues to encourage people to protect themselves from infection by following laid out regulations and guidelines even as the center continues “actively working to learn more about reinfection to inform public health action” (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/reinfection.html). In our second episode of this story, we will share more firsthand experiences with COVID-19 reinfection, more from the experts as well as WHO and CDC’s stand and explanation of occurrence regarding reinfections.
This publication was produced as part of Institute of War and Peace Reporting’s (IWPR) Africa Resilience Network (ARN) program, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored.
Marion Ndeta is a Harper Hill Global correspondent in Kenya and Humanitarian Communicator