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Woman develops rare 'coinfection' with two coronavirus variants

Illustration of coronavirus and genetic material.
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An elderly woman in Belgium was infected with two variants of the novel coronavirus at the same time, in a rare case of "coinfection" with the virus, according to a new report.

The 90-year-old woman, who was not vaccinated against COVID-19, developed a simultaneous infection with the alpha coronavirus variant (first identified in the U.K.), and the beta coronavirus variant (first identified in South Africa), according to the report, presented this week at the virtual European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID). Both the alpha and beta variants are considered coronavirus "variants of concern," or ones with worrisome features such as increased transmissibility, according to the World Health Organization.

Related: Coronavirus variants: Here's how the SARS-CoV-2 mutants stack up

The woman's condition quickly worsened after she was hospitalized, and she died in March, the report said.

There have been multiple cases of people who were infected with both the novel coronavirus and another respiratory virus, such as influenza, at the same time. But a coinfection with two variants of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has been rarely seen, with just a few other cases reported earlier this year, the authors said. Those cases didn't involve two concerning variants.

"This is one of the first documented cases of coinfection with two SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern," study lead author Anne Vankeerberghen, a molecular biologist at OLV Hospital in Aalst, Belgium, said in a statement. Vankeerberghen added that both these variants were circulating in Belgium at the time the woman was infected, and she likely contracted the two variants from two different people. Still, "unfortunately, we don't know how she became infected," Vankeerberghen said.

The woman was admitted to OLV Hospital on March 3, after experiencing multiple falls; and she tested positive for COVID-19 the same day, the report said.

At first, the woman didn't have any signs of breathing problems. But soon, that changed — she developed worsening respiratory symptoms, and died five days later, the authors said.

Using a PCR test for variants of concern, the authors found the woman had been infected with the two variants. A second PCR test confirmed the result.

"Whether the coinfection of the two variants of concern played a role in the fast deterioration of the patient is difficult to say," Vankeerberghen said.

In January 2021, researchers in Brazil reported two cases of people who were simultaneously infected with the gamma variant (first identified in Brazil) and another new coronavirus variant called VUI-NP13L. 

The occurrence of coronavirus coinfections is likely underestimated due to limited testing for multiple variants, Vankeerberghen added. The authors encourage increased testing for these variants.

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner
Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a masters degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.