FEARS have been raised that the coronavirus may be able to remain in the body and “reactivate” later after 51 recovered patients tested positive again.
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South Korea has been among the most successful countries globally in controlling the outbreak, using strict quarantining and widespread testing to slow its spread of the virus.
The number of new cases being diagnosed each day in the country is now at levels last seen as the pandemic was getting underway in February.
The 51 cases were identified as part of a study conducted in Daegu, the epicentre of the outbreak in South Korea, by a team of epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The center said it did not believe the patients had been reinfected, but that the virus had remained at undetectable levels in their cells and later “reactivated”.
The claim runs contrary to the bulk of current evidence about how the virus works.
Speaking to MailOnline, Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases professor at the University of East Anglia, said: “I agree that these will not be reinfections but I do not think these will be reactivations.
“Personally I think the most likely explanation is that the clearance samples were false negative.”
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Coronavirus patients are typically required to test negative twice before being allowed to leave quarantine.
Where this happens and they are later found to be infected, it is thought to be much more likely that the negative tests gave the wrong result.
The tests currently available produce an incorrect results roughly one in five times.
It is currently thought that coronavirus patients will remain immune from the disease in at least the medium-term once they have recovered.
Scientists have said previous reports of people becoming reinfected are concerning, but that much more evidence needs to be collected before conclusions can be drawn.
Speaking in February, Mark Harris, Professor of Virology at the University of Leeds, said: Clearly we need more information about these patients, such as were there underlying medical conditions or a change in circumstances that might have allowed the virus to escape immune control?
“This highlights the need for more research into the biology of the new coronavirus. It is very much early days in our efforts to understand it.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 1.3 million people globally and killed at least 73,608 since first breaking out in December.