Over 43 million Americans have reported cases of COVID-19. Many of them likely have some level of immunity that can be quite protective, even without vaccination. Even before vaccines were available, individuals who recovered from COVID-19 had detectable T-cell responses, and reinfections were rare, at least prior to the emergence of the more contagious Delta variant. This is what people refer to colloquially as “natural immunity,” to distinguish it from immunity conferred by vaccination. Some people claim that natural immunity is better and preferable to vaccine immunity and that a history of infection should count as much as being vaccinated when considering vaccine mandates. Is all this true? Well, like what we have seen and heard during the pandemic, a lot of truths have been spread, same with lies and disinformation. The story around natural immunity follows this pattern. Let me try to sort all this out here with a focus on whether previously infected people should consider getting vaccinated.
Natural infection can confer immunity to COVID. Like most viruses, previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 does confer immune protection against future re-exposure to the virus. Several peer-reviewed studies conducted in the early months of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, found that people previously infected were around 80% less likely to test positive for the virus during the next viral surge. These included studies of healthcare workers in the UK, the Danish population, and patients at the Cleveland Clinic, a large health system in Ohio and Florida.
Other data from the UK Office for National Statistics showed that between May and August 2021, a prior infection offered around the same level of protection against the Delta variant as vaccination. (Note that very recent and preliminary observations in South Africa suggest that infection with the new Omicron variant is high in people previously infected with other CoV-2 variants. However, since Omicron is so new and data on it are very sketchy at this time, this review will not further comment on this variant.)
A recent large Israeli study found that people who had been fully vaccinated with two Pfizer shots were 13 times more likely to later get infected with CoV-2 than those who had a prior infection. It also suggested that immunity from infection was longer lasting than that from vaccination. The study also showed that natural immunity plus the vaccine offered protection that was even stronger than either natural or vaccine immunity alone. This is one of the very few studies suggesting that natural immunity is better than vaccine immunity and has not been peer-reviewed. Furthermore, the subsequent rise of Delta since the end of this study confounds the issue a bit since Delta has been shown to be more infectious than the viruses the study subjects were exposed to.
In the most recent review of the current scientific evidence by the CDC, they concluded that both fully vaccinated and those previously infected with the virus have a low risk of re-infection for at least six months, but that the two forms of immunity appear to have different strengths. Vaccination with mRNA vaccines produced higher concentrations of neutralizing antibodies—the type that prevent the virus from entering cells—than natural infection, although, over time, the antibody levels waned in both groups. However, long lasting immune memory conferred by natural infection appeared to be stronger than that conferred by vaccination.
Over time, immune B cells typically evolve to produce antibodies that better recognize an antigen, and an earlier study published in Nature found that antibodies produced by naturally immune memory B cells continued to evolve at least a year after infection. In contrast, antibodies produced by memory B cells in vaccinated people did not change much over time. This would suggest that over time, antibodies produced by natural immunity gain greater ability to respond to re-infection with the virus than antibodies produced by vaccination. One possible reason for this difference in the evolution of the anti-viral antibodies was that pieces of virus remain in the body for weeks after infection and continue to engage the immune cells, whereas vaccine lipid nanoparticles quickly fade away providing less immune stimulation.
On the other hand, vaccine immunity might be better. So, as we have seen, a few reports suggest that natural immunity is superior to vaccine immunity. However, more studies suggest the opposite and even show that not everyone who catches COVID-19 will have effective immunity to re-infection. A CDC study reported that 36% of previously infected people did not form any antibodies against the virus. This is in stark contrast to antibody formation reported in 100% of people who received just one dose of an mRNA vaccine. Furthermore, the CDC reported in August that COVID survivors who went unvaxed were more than twice as likely as vaccinated people to get infected again contrasting with the Israeli study I mentioned earlier. Yet another CDC study looking at data from ~190 hospitals in nine states confirmed that unvaccinated people who survived an infection several months earlier were more than five times more likely to get COVID again than vaccinated people.
The reason that natural immunity might not always be effective is because the natural exposure to the virus is highly variable. People naturally infected are exposed to widely different doses of virus via different routes and possibly to different viral strains, all of which conspire to confer different degrees of protection. In contrast, vaccinated people receive standardized doses of the same viral antigen via the same route of exposure, making them more likely to develop a uniform degree of immunity. Researchers found that some people who had been infected had high antibody levels to the virus, while others had low levels, reflecting this variability in natural infection. This was substantiated by a new study from the University of Pittsburgh that also found that in many cases antibody levels from a prior infection are not high enough to protect people from getting sick again. Then, an Oxford study found that both long term T and B cell immune responses were highly variable in naturally immune people. The investigators took monthly samples of blood from infected subjects and measured their T and B cell responses over time. Interestingly, the variability in their responses was clearly identified as early as one-month post infection. Those with the weakest immunity at one month (25% of the subjects) had no detectable antibodies after six months. This contrasts to vaccine immunity, which does fade a bit over six months, but still remains consistently strong months after full vaccination.
Finally, new evidence from an NIH-supported study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle showed that antibodies from vaccinated people better recognized the mutated spike proteins from viral variants than antibodies from naturally immune people who had not been vaccinated. In other words, vaccinated people seem better able to respond to mutated spike proteins present in new viral variants.
The bottom line. In sum, while natural immunity can be effective, most evidence shows that vaccines typically give rise to consistently better antibody and long term T and B cell responses.
Having made this point, it is important to further note that a combination of both types of immunity, or so-called hybrid immunity, appears to be stronger than either alone. Researchers found that vaccination of naturally infected people boosted antibody and memory B cells to levels higher than seen in those with just either type of immunity. People with prior COVID-19 who received even one vaccine dose had half the risk of a breakthrough infection than unvaccinated people with prior COVID-19. Another study from researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York found that a single dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines produced more antibodies in people who had previously had COVID-19 than two vax doses did in those who had never encountered the virus. It also found that people with prior infection report more unpleasant, but not serious side effects from vaccination. Vaccinating previously infected people also elicits important cross-variant neutralizing antibodies that better protect them against the known viral variants. Hybrid immunity also appears to work in the other direction: A study of vaccinated people who were then infected during a July 4 holiday weekend outbreak on Cape Cod found that they produced higher levels of antibodies and T-cells directed against the virus. In sum, vaccination helps those with natural immunity (and everyone they interact with) and vice versa.
For these reasons, the CDC now recommends that people who have had COVID-19 be vaccinated because the shots plus natural immunity have been shown to offer better protection than natural immunity alone.