South Korea Sees Rise In 'Reactivated' Coronavirus Patients Who Were Initially Cured of Virus

South Korea has seen a rise in the number of people who recovered from the coronavirus and have now again tested positive, drawing concern and confusion as the country looks toward easing social distancing guidelines.

On Monday, the East Asian nation reported 116 confirmed cases of people who had been cleared of the virus now once again testing positive, Reuters reported. But health experts have suggested that it is likely the coronavirus was "reactivated" in the people, not that they have caught the virus again.

Jeong Eun-Kyeong, the director of Korea's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that the precise reason why the individuals are again positive for the virus is under investigation. In addition to the possibility of reactivation, other experts have suggested testing may have been inaccurate when the infected people initially tested negative.

"A study into how immunity is developed after COVID-19 infection [the disease caused by the coronavirus] is still ongoing," Jeong said during a press briefing on Friday, according to The Korea Herald.

South Korea coronavirus test
A medical staff member in a booth takes samples from a visitor for a COVID-19 test, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at a walk-thru testing station set up at Jamsil Sports Complex in Seoul on April 3. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty

After a person is infected with a virus and recovers, they generally develop a level of immunity. Because of this, scientists can train people's immune systems to recognize and fight off diseases by infecting them with an antigen so they can develop immunity to it.

If people do not develop immunity after being infected by the coronavirus, as some scientists fear may be the case, that would make it more difficult to develop a vaccine. However, the health experts in South Korea currently believe it is more like that faulty tests and reactivation are more plausible explanations.

Overall, South Korea has managed to largely contain its outbreak of the coronavirus. Although the Asian country had its first confirmed case of the virus at the same time as the U.S., the country has only 10,537 confirmed cases as of Monday, compared to 557,590 in the U.S. On Monday, South Korea announced that there were just 25 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours. Of those new cases, 16 had contracted the virus outside of the country.

While the death toll in the U.S. continues to surge, South Korea has only had 217 deaths due to the coronavirus. This was accomplished without the strict lockdown measures implemented across the U.S. and in many parts of Europe. Instead, the Asian nation quickly rolled out widespread testing and contact tracing to isolate those infected as well as those they'd been in contact with.

The South Korean government also laid out social distancing guidelines, which they are now looking at easing because their outbreak appears to be contained. The suggested plan is to replace the social distancing guidance with a stringent personal hygiene program.

"We shouldn't forget things are still far from being normal and shouldn't lower our guard completely. It could cost us a lot. That's why the government is very cautious about easing social distancing regulations," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Monday, The Korea Times reported.