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A Woman Died Of COVID After Contracting 2 Variants At The Same Time, Researchers Say

Scientists say a Belgian woman was infected with two coronavirus variants at the same time, including beta. Beta's spike protein is shown here in a scientific illustration.
Juan Gaertner
Getty Images/Science Photo Library
Scientists say a Belgian woman was infected with two coronavirus variants at the same time, including beta. Beta's spike protein is shown here in a scientific illustration.

The patient came to the hospital because she was repeatedly falling down. She was breathing fine, and her blood oxygen levels were good. But tests showed that the 90-year-old Belgian woman had COVID-19 — and not just one strain, but two variants of the virus. She died at the hospital in just five days after her respiratory system rapidly deteriorated.

"To our knowledge, this is one of the first reports of a double infection" with two coronavirus variants of concern, the researchers said.

The woman had both the alpha and beta variants of the coronavirus (which were detected first in the U.K. and South Africa, respectively), according to a paper that was presented over the weekend at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases.

The woman was probably infected by two separate people

"Both these variants were circulating in Belgium at the time, so it is likely that the lady was co-infected with different viruses from two different people," said Anne Vankeerberghen of the OLV Hospital in Aalst, Belgium, in a news release.

"Unfortunately, we don't know how she became infected," added Vankeerberghen, who is a molecular biologist and lead author of the report.

Before falling ill, the woman had been living alone in her home, where she received nursing care. Her previous medical history contained no red flags, according to Vankeerberghen and her co-authors.

But a screening test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, returned a "strongly positive" result. Follow-up PCR tests for variants of concern identified the two coronavirus strains in her system. Secondary tests confirmed the unusual results.

While the case is being seen as the first confirmed instance of a double infection, Vankeerberghen and the other researchers note that similar cases have been reported. In Brazil, for instance, people were found to have two variants in their system early this year, but that study has not yet been published. And in the past, the researchers say, flu patients have been found to have contracted two distinct strains of the influenza virus.

Testing for coronavirus variants in COVID-19 patients is routine at the OLV Hospital. While the researchers call the woman's condition "exceptional," they say more widespread testing for variants of concern "would probably identify more mixed infection and could lead to a better insight for their effect on illness and treatment."

Variants are complicating the fight against COVID-19

Coronavirus variants have been blamed for driving localized or regional surges of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., even as high vaccination rates have tamped down on cases in many areas.

In April, the Biden administration announced a massive push to boost testing for variants.

"U.S. public health officials have been operating with incomplete information because of an inadequate viral genomics surveillance system," as NPR reported at the time.

Health experts say it's particularly vital to identify the strains of the virus that are responsible for thousands of U.S. "breakthrough cases," in which the virus manages to infect vaccinated people.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.