Back in the spring last year, a 45-year-old man went to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston because of a COVID-19 infection. Doctors treated him with steroids and discharged him five days later.
But the COVID infection never went away — for 154 days. “He was readmitted to the hospital several times over the subsequent five months for recurrence of his COVID-19 infection and severe pneumonia,” says infectious disease doctor Jonathan Li at Harvard Medical School who helped to treat the man.
“So this is an extraordinary individual,” Li says.
So extraordinary in fact, that this man’s case is offering scientists surprising clues about where the new coronavirus virus variants emerged, and why they’re causing explosive outbreaks on three continents.
To be clear here, the man wasn’t what doctors call a “long hauler,” or a person who clears a COVID infection and then continues to have health problems for months. This man had living, growing virus in body for five months, Li says. The same infection lasted for five months.
“That is one of the remarkable aspects of this case,” Li says. “In fact, he was highly infectious even five months after the initial diagnosis.”
This man had a severe autoimmune disease, which required him to take drugs to suppress his immune system. So his body couldn’t fight off the COVID infection as well as a healthy person. He would get better for a while and then the virus would counterattack. He would fall sick again. Eventually, he ended up in the ICU. He passed away five months after the initial diagnosis.
Throughout the man’s infection, Li and his colleagues ran an illuminating experiment. Every few weeks, the team extracted coronavirus from the man’s body and sequenced the virus’ genome.
Li couldn’t believe what they found. “I was shocked,” he says. “When I saw the virus sequences, I knew that we were dealing with something completely different and potentially very important.”
Original publication 5 February, 2021
Posted on NatCorn 18th February 2021
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