Is ‘natural immunity’ better than a coronavirus vaccine?
Andrew Trunsky, DCNF
- It’s not clear whether infection or a vaccine provides a stronger immune response, but experts urge Americans to get vaccinated when eligible due to how effective they are known to be.
- “Natural immunity” from contracting the virus provides a strong response, but initial studies have suggested that vaccines may provide an even stronger one, since the exact level of natural protection varies from person to person and may wane over time.
- “Vaccines are designed to produce a strong and effective immune response,” Dr. Ellen Foxman, an assistant professor of immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, told the DCNF. “We really don’t know how protective a previous infection is in every case. But we do have a lot of data about the efficacy of vaccines.”
Since the coronavirus vaccines were approved by the Food and Drug Administration last December, some have suggested that they were unnecessary for those who have already had COVID-19, arguing that “natural immunity” was more effective than immunity granted by vaccines.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who had COVID-19 last year, suggested in February that “naturally acquired” cases were 99.9982% effective against reinfection, a number greater than the protection rates offered by the three authorized vaccines. But at this point, experts say, we do not definitively know whether infection or a vaccine provides a stronger response.
Most initial studies have suggested that while “natural immunity” does offer a strong response, vaccines may provide an even stronger one. And even though immunity built after contracting the virus may be quite robust at first, it is impossible to know the exact level of protection it provides and could even decrease over time, Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Nobody knows exactly how protected they are. Immunity varies from person to person, and wanes somewhat over time. Reinfection is certainly possible,” Hanage said, adding that after about eight months it may decrease to a point that permits reinfection in approximately 10% of people.
Even though experts are not exactly sure how long immunity lasts from a vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control still recommends it, since vaccines, at the very least, offer protection without the risk of long-term health complications or death from the virus itself.
“Vaccines are designed to produce a strong and effective immune response,” Dr. Ellen Foxman, an assistant professor of immunobiology and laboratory medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, told the DCNF. “Although you can sometimes [generate a response] after being infected, we really don’t know how protective a previous infection is in every case. But we do have a lot of data about the efficacy of vaccines.”
“For that reason, once there are enough vaccines available, it absolutely makes sense to get one even if you have recovered from COVID. Then you can be sure you are protected and eliminate the guess work,” Foxman added.
Breaking Down The Vaccines
The three coronavirus vaccines granted emergency approval in the United States are from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
All three are overwhelmingly safe and effective, according to the FDA, Centers for Disease Control, and the vast majority of health experts. Real-world analysis from Israel has shown Pfizer’s vaccine to be over 97% effective overall and 94% effective against asymptomatic spread, while trial results from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines have shown them to be nearly 95% and 72% effective, respectively.
Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, while slightly lower than the other two in preventing overall spread, was 85% effective in preventing symptomatic cases and 100% effective in preventing coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, approved in February, was designed to be fully administered in just one dose, while Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines were designed to be given as two doses administered three and four weeks apart, respectively.
Despite the differences between the vaccines, public health experts have urged Americans to not discriminate between them and receive whichever is available once they are eligible.
“[Each vaccine undergoes] a very careful vetting process for both safety and efficacy,” Foxman said. “Therefore, any FDA-approved vaccine is a great choice. It cannot protect you if you have not gotten it yet, therefore my advice would be to get the first vaccine available to you, as soon as possible.”
In multiple polls regarding Americans’ willingness to receive the vaccine, those opposed have often expressed hesitancy due to possible side effects including but not limited to aches, swelling and fatigue. And while they can be uncomfortable or even painful for up to several days, side effects are temporary and a sign that your body is actively building immunity to COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Do Coronavirus Variants Increase The Risk Of Reinfection?
“It is strongly suspected that some variants … are better at causing reinfections,” Hanage said. “The [Brazilian] variant has been associated with a very large surge of infections that overwhelmed healthcare, even in communities that we thought had a very large amount of immunity from prior infection. We are extremely concerned about the potential of these variants to cause disease in unvaccinated individuals, whether or not they have previously been infected [with COVID-19].”
“Multiple studies show that vaccination [among those who have been previously infected] produces greater immunity than they have already,” Hanage added. “The resulting immunity is higher, which means that it is more likely to protect against variants, and there is evidence from laboratory studies that this is the case.”