Why have I caught Covid five times?

Perhaps the booster hadn’t had time to kick in yet, although experts say the vaccine doesn’t actually seem to do much to prevent you from catching the virus – it’s more about preventing serious illness. 

And then last week I got what I thought was the early onset of hayfever, only to be told a recent contact had tested positive and I should probably break out the lateral flows again… and guess what happened? Presumably, this one is the new version of Omicron, BA.2 which is now dominant in the UK. 

I wish I could tell you that this is because I spent the pandemic living life to the max, attending illicit raves and refusing to kowtow to the overzealous police enforcement but, for the most part, I’ve just gone with the flow and stuck to the rules. I wore my mask on public transport for as long as it was mandated and stopped when it wasn’t –  not for ideological reasons, more that I’m still incredibly prone to forgetting and losing masks. 

I should probably also count myself lucky that, at 28, I’ve been young and healthy enough to fight off the virus every time I’ve had it, even before I was fully vaccinated. So how common are multiple reinfections like mine?

“I’ve never come across anyone who has had it five times,” Prof Denis Kinane of the University Of Bern, and founder of Covid screening service Cignpost Diagnostics, tells me. “Three has been the max I’ve seen. You’re a leader.” Praise indeed. 

Still, perhaps it’s not quite as surprising as it seems. New data from the Office Of National statistics shows that infections are on the up in Britain, with just over 4.9 million Britons infected in the week leading up to 26 March – around one in every 13 people. What’s interesting is that, according to the UK Health Security Agency, reinfections are making up a good portion of these. In the most recent week of data, the seven days before 20 March, 50,866 people in the country have recorded a second infection, 8,717 are on their third and 74 are on their fourth episode. So far there’s no data on how many people are on their fifth turn. However, given that testing has been down recently and only looks to get worse now that lateral flow tests are no longer freely available to the general public, these figures could be an undercount. 

Part of the reason for this is the aforementioned new variant of Omicron, named BA.2. It is similar but even more infectious than the BA.1 variant which took hold in Britain just before Christmas. Some evidence suggests that BA.2 is slipping past the defences of those who’ve previously had other variants and even, in some cases like mine, those who’ve had omicron BA.1 too. 

ONS data suggests that those most likely to get reinfected are those who’ve not been vaccinated (unlike me) although young people seem at slightly higher risk of reinfection as well, presumably because they’re more likely to be socialising and mixing. 

None of this is necessarily anything to worry about, Prof Kinane explains. “You’ll have both natural immunity through your infections and vaccine-induced immunity, and that immunity will protect you from dying or getting bad symptoms,” he says. “However, it’s not going to protect you from catching nor spreading the infection. According to our research, once you’re vaccinated there’s a 10-20 per cent chance that you’ll be less infectious than someone unvaccinated. Really you’re getting vaccinated to avoid dying from the virus, not to avoid catching it.”

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