Ottawa health unit backtracks after issuing misleading advice on COVID-19 immunity

A local health agency in Canada has been issuing misleading public health advice by telling recovered COVID-19 patients they are likely safe from re-infection for two years or more — information that goes against what federal health officials have cautioned through the entire COVID-19 pandemic. 

After being contacted by CBC News, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is walking back the comments and said the information was outdated and it would update its website and issue a correction on social media.

But the latest research OPH pointed to in its email to CBC has also not been peer reviewed and includes a disclaimer that it “should not be used to guide clinical practice.”

The health unit’s original advice was based on science from the SARS outbreak in 2003. An epidemiologist says it’s a mistake to use data based on a virus that acts very differently to make such concrete statements to the public. It could lead people to think they are immune from COVID-19, when they may not be, experts said.

“I feel like it’s putting a false sense of security out to the community,” said Ottawa resident Christine Seaby, whose parents both contracted COVID-19 after a trip to Spain earlier this year. “I think it’s irresponsible, quite frankly.”

Seaby’s family was told directly by OPH that they didn’t need to undergo COVID-19 testing because her parents had already tested positive and were likely immune. 

As of Saturday, Ottawa Public Health’s website said it was “a safe assumption” that previously infected residents would be safe from contracting COVID-19 again for anywhere from months to one to two years, “and perhaps longer.” The information has since been pulled from the website and now says it’s “under review and will be updated shortly.”

The agency linked that claim to immunity research conducted on survivors of the 2003 SARS epidemic, a disease OPH said was caused by “a very similar virus” to COVID-19. The public health unit also tweeted a similar message Friday to its 80,000 followers, but deleted the post after being contacted by CBC News. 

In a now-deleted tweet posted Friday, Ottawa Public Health gave misleading messaging that those who have recovered from COVID-19 are likely protected from being reinfected for a period of up to two years — or possibly longer. (Ottawa Public Heath/Twitter)

The information — now removed from OPH’s website — is not in line with repeated statements from Canada’s top doctor, who has said it’s still not known how long any immunity to the novel coronavirus would last.

“We don’t understand enough about the immune response to the virus — except that people do generate antibodies — and we have to see how those antibodies might work and how long they last for,” said Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam during a May 6 news conference.

When asked for comment Saturday, the federal health agency reiterated that research on the subject was still underway.

Immunity confusion could lead to continued spread

In an email to CBC News, OPH did not explain how it planned to update its page, but said it was aware that it’s not known how long COVID-19 antibodies last.

OPH also referred CBC to a recent study about other forms of coronavirus and their likelihood of reinfection — but the research is in its early stages and is not supposed to be used for public health advice. 

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and researcher at the Toronto General Hospital, confirmed there are still “significant unanswered questions” when it comes to immunity from the virus. 

Having said that, many people in medicine, science and public health believe that if someone recovers from COVID-19, they probably have some degree of immunity,” Bogoch said.

“But how much immunity, and for how long, we don’t really know. It would be a total guess.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, says it’s important to discuss what is not yet known about the novel coronavirus, including uncertainty around COVID-19 immunity following an infection. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

That uncertainty poses serious consequences for COVID-19’s continued spread. 

“There’s the possibility that some people may have a false sense of security, believe they’re immune and get themselves into trouble if they were reinfected,” Bogoch said.

Last month, Tam warned that because of such unknowns, people who might still be susceptible could “reignite another chain of transmission” of the virus. 

Ottawa family gets positive result again

Those are fears the Seaby family is now living through: after several negative tests, Christine Seaby’s father, Brian Seaby, tested positive again. 

Because he had been in contact with other family members — including his pregnant daughter — the family immediately wondered if everyone should undergo testing.

Brian Seaby, 65, tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving back in Canada from a trip to Spain earlier this year. After receiving multiple negative test results following his diagnosis, Seaby later tested positive, which he was told was likely a false positive. (Supplied)

“[OPH] said it was not necessary. No one needed to be tested, because they felt that because Brian didn’t have any symptoms … that he wasn’t contagious,” said his wife, Carol Seaby.

For peace of mind, some of her children underwent testing anyway — but now Seaby is left wondering whether she infected anyone else. 

Can SARS research be linked to COVID-19?

OPH’s original information also linked COVID-19 to the immunity response found in SARS survivors — something University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan called “premature” and “a problem.”

“They’re different viruses. They behave differently. They look differently, and they manifest differently in the population,” Deonandan said, adding that it’s safer to rely on new research specifically about COVID-19.

While the two viruses have some similarities, Bogoch said they don’t have everything in common.

“I think it’s challenging to extrapolate from one coronavirus and apply it to other coronaviruses,” he said. 

For now, families like the Seabys are left to grapple with the confusion.

“I just wish that we knew who we could listen to,” said Carol Seaby.  “Maybe it’s only going to be history that’s going to provide … the clinical evidence that we need.”

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