On its face, reinfection appears to be a straightforward term. It is literally “infection, again”—a recovered person’s second dalliance with the same microbe. Long written into the scientific literature of infectious disease, it is a familiar word, innocuous enough: a microbial echo, an immunological encore act. But thanks to the pandemic, reinfection has become a semantic and scientific mess…theatlantic, TCoronavirus Reinfection Will Soon Become Our Reality, Katherine J. Wu, 2021

Newly saddled with the baggage of COVID-19, reinfection has taken on a more terrifying aspect, raising the specter of never-ending cycles of disease. It has sat at the center of debates over testing, immunity, and vaccines; its meaning muddled by ominous headlines, it has become wildly misunderstood. When I ask immunologists about reinfection in the context of the coronavirus, many sigh.

I don’t blame them. At the heart of any conversation about reinfection is a largely unsolved mystery: whether COVID-19 survivors are truly safe from the coronavirus. Last summer, a cluster of apparent cases of reinfection seemed to hint that the virus was stronger than the body’s ability to protect against it—that reinfection, though uncommon, could be chalked up to a failure of the body’s defenses.


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