A 45-year-old Boston-area man with a rare autoimmune disorder suffered from an active novel coronavirus infection for five months, during which the pathogen mutated several times before he eventually died, medical researchers say.
The case, detailed in The New England Journal of Medicine, has drawn the attention of professionals researching the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. They believe it may lead to the origin of the variants of the disease that have emerged, such as those from South Africa and Britain, New York Fox network affiliate WNYW said on its website.
The patient suffered from Antiphospholipid syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that caused his body to mistakenly target proteins in the blood that prevent clotting. He was required to take drugs to suppress his immune system.
He was admitted to Brigham and Women's Hospital, the teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School, several times for recurrence of the infection and treated with antiviral medications and experimental antibody drugs.
"We think that this situation, where his immune system was weakened but still able to mount some response, allowed the virus to pretty much live in an environment where it had to change in order to survive," said Dr. Jonathan Li, an infectious disease physician at Harvard Medical School who runs a virology laboratory and studied the man's case.
"The patient that we studied had detectable, high levels of virus for five months. This was a highly unusual situation," he said.
Since the patient's immune system couldn't completely expunge or kill the virus, it effectively forced the virus to mutate and change, Li said.
"We don't know exactly where some of these new variants came from,'' Li said. “But I think it's one of the leading hypothesis that it's a patient like this gentleman that I helped study — that it's this kind of immunosuppressed situation that could have led to some of these emerging variants."
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