Increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 reinfection associated with emergence of Omicron in South Africa Journal Articles uri icon

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  • SummaryIntroductionGlobally, there have been more than 404 million cases of SARS-CoV-2, with 5.8 million confirmed deaths, as of February 2022. South Africa has experienced four waves of SARS-CoV-2 transmission, with the second, third, and fourth waves being driven by the Beta, Delta, and Omicron variants, respectively. A key question with the emergence of new variants is the extent to which they are able to reinfect those who have had a prior natural infection.RationaleWe developed two approaches to monitor routine epidemiological surveillance data to examine whether SARS-CoV-2 reinfection risk has changed through time in South Africa, in the context of the emergence of the Beta (B.1.351), Delta (B.1.617.2), and Omicron (B.1.1.529) variants. We analyze line list data on positive tests for SARS-CoV-2 with specimen receipt dates between 04 March 2020 and 31 January 2022, collected through South Africa’s National Notifiable Medical Conditions Surveillance System. Individuals having sequential positive tests at least 90 days apart were considered to have suspected reinfections. Our routine monitoring of reinfection risk included comparison of reinfection rates to the expectation under a null model (approach 1) and estimation of the time-varying hazards of infection and reinfection throughout the epidemic (approach 2) based on model-based reconstruction of the susceptible populations eligible for primary and second infections.Results105,323 suspected reinfections were identified among 2,942,248 individuals with laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 who had a positive test result at least 90 days prior to 31 January 2022. The number of reinfections observed through the end of the third wave in September 2021 was consistent with the null model of no change in reinfection risk (approach 1). Although increases in the hazard of primary infection were observed following the introduction of both the Beta and Delta variants, no corresponding increase was observed in the reinfection hazard (approach 2). Contrary to expectation, the estimated hazard ratio for reinfection versus primary infection was lower during waves driven by the Beta and Delta variants than for the first wave (relative hazard ratio for wave 2 versus wave 1: 0.71 (CI95: 0.60–0.85); for wave 3 versus wave 1: 0.54 (CI95: 0.45–0.64)). In contrast, the recent spread of the Omicron variant has been associated with an increase in reinfection hazard coefficient. The estimated hazard ratio for reinfection versus primary infection versus wave 1 was 1.75 (CI95: 1.48–2.10) for the period of Omicron emergence (01 November 2021 to 30 November 2021) and 1.70 (CI95: 1.44–2.04) for wave 4 versus wave 1. Individuals with identified reinfections since 01 November 2021 had experienced primary infections in all three prior waves, and an increase in third infections has been detected since mid-November 2021. Many individuals experiencing third infections had second infections during the third (Delta) wave that ended in September 2021, strongly suggesting that these infections resulted from immune evasion rather than waning immunity.ConclusionPopulation-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection. In contrast, there is no population-wide epidemiological evidence of immune escape associated with the Beta or Delta variants. This finding has important implications for public health planning, particularly in countries like South Africa with high rates of immunity from prior infection. Further development of methods to track reinfection risk during pathogen emergence, including refinements to assess the impact of waning immunity, account for vaccine-derived protection, and monitor the risk of multiple reinfections will be an important tool for future pandemic preparedness.


  • Pulliam, Juliet RC
  • van Schalkwyk, Cari
  • Govender, Nevashan
  • Gottberg, Anne von
  • Cohen, Cheryl
  • Groome, Michelle J
  • Dushoff, Jonathan
  • Mlisana, Koleka
  • Moultrie, Harry

publication date

  • November 11, 2021