Can You Get Coronavirus Twice? Why Monkey Butts May Hold The Answer

Scientists are doing primate tests to figure out coronavirus immunity.

Can You Get Coronavirus Twice? Why Monkey Butts May Hold The Answer

Every day. the news about the coronavirus pandemic gets scarier. As the frighteningly contagious disease makes its way across the US, the news is full of stories of crowded hospitals and shortages of medical equipment for staff. The death toll in the United States has reached 458 as of Monday, March 23 — and rising.

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The scariest part of this virus is that it comes with more questions than answers right now. Because it never affected humans before the end of 2019, doctors and researchers don't know exactly what it does or how to treat it.

There isn't currently a vaccine for it and the current anti-viral drugs haven't been working to cure it so far. 

One of the looming questions for researchers and scientists is whether or not people will develop an immunity to the virus after having it. If that were to happen, it would go a long way toward creating the kind of herd immunity that would limit the effects of future outbreaks. But at this point, no one knows for sure if people can become immune or not. 


Researchers in China have done preliminary studies to see if immunity is possible, answering the question: Can you get COVID-19 twice? 

Read on for the latest research. 

There's a lot about this disease that we don't know.

Because this virus is novel to humans, scientists don't know what it does. Even the process of testing to see if people have it is an evolving process. The current tests involve doing a nasal swab (imagine having a q-tip shoved way up your nose) then sending it to a lab for culturing. The quality of the test has been questioned and some doctors think there have been false negatives. But there are new and ever-evolving advances in the testing technology.

This weekend, the US announced that rapid results tests were going to be made available as soon as they could ship, allowing doctors to potentially diagnose the illness in 45 minutes, instead of 3-5 days. 


2. Some people seemed to be getting reinfected really quickly.

In the earlier phases of the pandemic, before the virus was noticed in America, there were reports of people in other countries being infected more than once.

Several people who had been tested and confirmed to have cases of COVID-19 recovered were re-tested and told they didn't have the virus and then felt bad again, got tested yet again, and showed COVID-19 again.

This is potentially scary news since most of the work is hoping that we can all develop natural immunity and not have to be worried about catching the disease over and over again. 

At least one expert thinks that the re-infection cases aren't re-infections at all. 


Peter Doherty, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996 for discovering how the immune system identifies cells that have been infected by a virus, suspects that the cases of people testing positive a second time aren't actually re-infection cases.

He's more inclined to believe they were never really better in the first place. "I suspect they've been infected all along. It's just that this area that's been sampled hasn't been detecting it," he told reporters. He explained that the virus could be in the lungs, and not in nasal tissues where the swab can reach.

If that happened, the test would be clear of the virus but that doesn't mean the whole body of the tested individual is clear of it. 

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Can you get coronavirus twice and how soon will we know if re-infection is possible?

The good news is that Chinese scientists have already been trying to answer that question. They discovered that rhesus macaque, a species monkey that is common in the region, can contract coronavirus in the same way humans do.

In lab trials with the small primates, they exposed the monkeys to the virus and took care of them when they started to show the illness. Once they were recovered and tests showed they were clear of the virus, they exposed them again to see what would happen.​

What do monkey butts have to do with all of this?

The way the scientists checked for the presence of the virus in the monkeys was to swab their noses and anuses. The virus leaves the body in all sorts of ways, included through feces so there can be traces of it on the rectal tissue of an infected creature.


As we understand it, swabbing monkey butts is how the scientists got around the problem of only testing the nose when the virus might be elsewhere in the body.  

Did the monkeys get sick a second time?

This is the good news: the monkey did not get sick again. “The monkeys with re-exposure showed no recurrence of COVID-19,” the scientists wrote. Researchers in America are trying to learn more from that study and from their own work on the virus.


Some urged caution about getting too excited about the study from China. “We do not know how long people are immune from reinfection, only that in a small monkey study a few animals did not get reinfected when re-challenged,”  David O’Connor, a vaccine researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told reporters. “More will be known in the coming months.”

There's obviously still a great deal we don't know about COVID-19 but rest assured, scientists are working top speed to learn as much as they can.

Professor Doherty, the Nobel winner, is optimistic about having a vaccine soon.  "I think 18 months is probably on the long side," he said. "It may well be that China may bash ahead a lot quicker, then come up with an effective vaccine. I hope we'll have something in 12 months. I would say it's very likely we will develop a vaccine for COVID-19 and it will be a good vaccine."

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.