Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that 65 million Americans have been diagnosed with a confirmed case of COVID-19, with positivity rates skyrocketing in the last month. That equates to nearly 1 in every 5 of us.
However, with the recent influx of cases and new variants (delta, omicron) appearing at a faster rate, you or someone you know may be counted twice… or three times. Yes, it is possible to re-infect with coronavirus, complicating herd immunity even further.
With all of this in mind, and with new cases still surpassing 850,000 per day for the past week, Katie Couric joined a virtual chat with Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Friday, January 14, to go over all of our infection FAQs.
The CDC defines “reinfection” as becoming ill once, recovering from that illness, and becoming ill again. According to Fauci, this phenomenon is especially common among those who became ill as a result of an earlier variant.
So, why can’t we get rid of it? And why don’t the antibodies help protect us from a second or third-round knockout by COVID-19?
“This is a highly transmissible virus,” Fauci said. “If you get infected in your upper airway and it goes to the lungs and goes throughout the body, you can get very, very seriously ill. But blocking the virus at the upper airway … you really need the immune system concentrated at the upper airway, which is not easy to do when you have a vaccine that is systemically given to you.”
This is exactly why the common cold coronaviruses that circulate each year during the winter months have infected — and continue to infect— all of us, according to Fauci.
“But they are benign enough that you may get some sniffles or a sore throat and it goes away in a day or two. The immunity isn’t profound … that’s what we believe we’re seeing with the pandemic,” he added.
This is especially true for omicron, the current dominant strain in the United States, which has 36 mutations in its spike protein. According to new research, omicron multiplies incredibly rapidly in the body, possibly 70 times faster in the lungs than the delta variant.
“Omicron is reinfecting people who were infected with delta and infected with beta. There’s absolute data on that; if you are prior infected with another variant, omicron can much more readily infect you than the actual original variant that infected you,” Fauci explained. (This is one of many reasons why health experts are now recommending that we retire cloth masks and step up to more protective KN95, N95, and KF94 masks.)
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll all need another booster shot of the current vaccines. The scientific jury is still out about “what the durability of the third booster shot of an mRNA [Pfizer and Moderna] and the second shot of a J&J [Johnson & Johnson] are,” Fauci said.
But if you haven’t yet been boosted, it’s still extremely wise to step up.
“Without scaring anybody, there is a possibility that there will be another variant and we’ve got to be prepared for it,” Fauci said. Getting a booster shot for additional protection against future mutations is prudent.
Looking ahead, since so many people are still unvaccinated across the globe and positivity rates are still very high, Fauci explained that scientists are working tirelessly to create a “universal coronavirus or a pan-coronavirus vaccine or at least a pan-SARS coronavirus vaccine which means you can get all of the variants to be covered. You may not prevent infection from another variant, but you certainly will prevent severe disease from another variant.”
We can’t say how long this will take because it’s an entirely new scientific discovery, said Fauci. But, in terms of herd immunity, we’re likely to reach a point with COVID-19 similar to where we are now with measles or polio, when “95 percent of the population is vaccinated, so you’ve essentially eliminated it from society—not from the world, but from society,” he said. COVID-19’s mission right now is to essentially turn down the firehose that is spraying with such force.
As a good starting point, we “might want enough herd immunity so that you get infected but don’t get sick,” Fauci explained.