Spain sees more Covid reinfections in last fortnight than rest of pandemic

The Omicron coronavirus variant caused more reinfections in the last fortnight than that seen during the rest of the pandemic, data from Spanish researchers showed.

A health worker collects a swab sample for a COVID-19 test from a woman.
A health worker collects a swab sample for a COVID-19 test. Infections in Spain have hit record highs in the last few weeks, driven by the contagious Omicron variant. Pau BARRENA / AFP

In the last two weeks, 20,890 infections were reported, according to the latest data from Spain’s state-backed Carlos III Health Institute (ISCIII). The data includes confirmed and suspected repeat infections.

This is higher than the 17,140 cases of repeat infection registered from the start of the pandemic to December 22nd.

The reinfections were due to the highly contagious Omicron variant, immunology professor Alfredo Corell told Spanish news site NIUS.

“Prior to this variant, reinfections were anecdotal at the global level. They were people who had lost their protection or were immunosuppressed. Omicron has changed this paradigm. We cannot say that there are no reinfections now – there are many,” he explained. 

Up until mid-November, there were fewer than one thousand reinfections a week, but that all changed in the last weeks of December, with numbers climbing to 2,451 and 7,817.

By then, Omicron was already present in 42.9 percent of the sequenced samples, according to the latest weekly data.

And the latest 14-day infection rate stood at 2,723 cases per 100,000 people, according to data from the Ministry of Health published on Friday.
“Although the possibility of reinfection is small – one in 100, if millions are infected, there will be tens of thousands of reinfections”, said José Antonio López Guerrero, director of the Neurovirology group and professor of microbiology at the Autonomous University of Madrid, speaking to NIUS.

The findings reinforce a December report from the UK’s Imperial College, which said that people were over five times more likely to get reinfected with Omicron than with Delta.  

Fortunately, reinfections are “rarely serious,” according to Julian Olalla, doctor and spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology, adding there were currently no hospitalisations for cases of repeat infection.

“I haven’t seen any for a long time,” he added.

The most likely reason for the higher number of reinfections with Omicron is the more-than-40 mutations that the variant has in its spike protein, Corell said, explaining that this made it easier for the virus to evade the body’s antibodies.

But the body also has cellular immunity, which resists mutations better. Although this type of immunity won’t stop people becoming reinfected as it takes a few days to become active, it does prevent most serious disease, he explained.


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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.