Scientists have been shocked to learn that a woman was shedding infectious coronavirus particles for a full 70 days after initial diagnosis. The study was published earlier this month in the scientific journal Cell.
Previously, experts believed those who were severely ill with the virus to the point of hospitalization only shed the COVID-19 virus for up to 20 days after receiving positive results. However, in this case, the woman continued to shed its genetic material for months despite not showing any symptoms.
However, what does make her case unusual was she suffered from leukemia. As a result, researchers have hypothesized that individuals with weakened immune systems, such as cancer or HIV/AIDS patients, can shed the virus for incredibly long periods of time despite appearing unaffected.
In the United States alone, an estimated three million people currently suffer from some type of condition that affects their immune system, making it possible that large portions of the population could be secret carriers.
"Although it is difficult to extrapolate from a single patient, our data suggest that long-term shedding of infectious virus may be a concern in certain immunocompromised patients," the research team cautioned, per Science Alert.
"As this virus continues to spread, more people with a range of immunosuppressing disorders will become infected, and it's important to understand how SARS-CoV-2 behaves in these populations," added virologist and co-author Vincent Munster from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Though stunned by the virus's longevity in the patient, scientists also made sure to take advantage of the case by studying how the disease mutated during a long infection period. They discovered different viral variants would move to prominence throughout the course of the illness and turnover of each of the variants was high.
The researchers hope their data on the virus's behavior can help doctors in figuring out new ways to fight the coronavirus, including development of the eagerly awaited vaccine.
"Understanding the mechanism of virus persistence and eventual clearance will be essential to providing appropriate treatment and preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2, as persistent infection and prolonged shedding of infectious SARS-CoV-2 occur more frequently," the research team concluded.
The behavior of immunocompromised patients shedding the virus for longer periods of time mirrors cases in similar diseases such as influenza and Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the experts have expressed their hope in finding further links between the conditions.
Meanwhile, the United States just reported a record-breaking number of daily coronavirus cases as fears of a second wave loom. In total, COVID-19 has infected close to 50 million people across the globe and claimed 1.24 million lives.