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Suspected case of COVID-19 reinfection in South Korea

Amid a series of confirmed cases of reinfection around the world, a suspected case of reinfection was reported for the first time in South Korea. Reinfection means that an individual was infected with the coronavirus, recovered, and then became infected with the same virus, but a slightly mutated one. Genetic sequencing is used to assess whether or not the virus in the second infection is different from the first one.

South Korean scientists say that in the same way antibodies created by an onslaught of the flu are maintained in the body for a limited amount of time, it may be possible that the antibodies created by previous infection are temporary, leaving the body susceptible to reinfection. As a result, some experts even predict that even if a vaccine is developed, people may need to be vaccinated on a regular basis like flu shots.

Recent cases of COVID-19 reinfections have occurred in Hong Kong, the United States, Belgium, Netherlands, Brazil, and other countries around the world. On the 24th of last month, Science, an international academic journal, introduced a case of reinfection investigated by a research team at Hong Kong University. The 33-year-old man, who was completely cured after being confirmed in March, was diagnosed with a different type of coronavirus on April 15. He was treated at the hospital during the first infection, but was asymptomatic during the second confirmed infection.

Kim Woo-joo, a professor specializing in infectious diseases at Korea University Guro Hospital, said, "There have been cases of reinfection after complete recovery, but we had to call it cases of 'relapse' rather than 'reinfection' because they were of the same genotype," adding, "We suspect that the patient may have been infected with type S or V, which was prevalent in Wuhan, China during the first infection phase, and then become infected with type G (from Europe) in the second infection."

코로나19 완치 판정을 받았다가 재감염된 사례가 홍콩, 미국 등에서 잇따라 확인된 가운데 국내에서도 코로나19 재감염 의심사례가 처음으로 나왔다. 재감염된 확진자들은 첫번째 감염 때와 다른 유전형의 코로나19 바이러스에 감염된 것으로 나타났다. 전문가들은 코로나19에 걸렸다가 치유되면서 자연적으로 형성된 항체가 독감(인플루엔자)처럼 일정 기간만 유지되기 때문에 얼마든지 재감염이 일어날 수 있다고 보고 있다. 이에 따라 백신이 개발되더라도 독감 예방접종처럼 주기적으로 백신을 재접종해야 할 것이란 전망이 나온다.

최근 코로나19 재감염 사례는 홍콩·미국·벨기에·네덜란드·브라질등 세계 각국에서 발생하고 있다. 지난달 24일 국제학술지 ‘사이언스’는 홍콩대 연구팀이 조사한 재감염 사례를 소개했다. 지난 3월 확진 판정을 받은 후 완치된 33세 남성은 다른 유형의 코로나19 바이러스에 감염돼 지난달 15일 재확진 판정을 받았다. 첫번째 감염 때는 병원에서 치료를 받았지만, 두번째 감염 때는 무증상이었다.

김우주 고대구로병원 감염내과 교수는 국내 재감염 사례에 대해 “그동안 완치 후 재양성 사례가 있긴 했지만, 이때는 유전자형이 같았기 때문에 ‘재감염’이라기보다는 ‘재발’이라고 봐야 했다”면서 “이번에 확인된 사례는 첫번째 감염 시 중국 우한에서 주로 유행한 S형이나 V형에 감염됐다가, 두번째 감염 시에는 (유럽에서) 국내로 유입된 G형에 감염된 것 아닐까 추측된다”고 말했다.

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