Vaccine confers better protection than natural immunity, CDC finds

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WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, the conservative radio host Dennis Prager announced he had contracted the coronavirus. This was, as far as he was concerned, good news. The unvaccinated Prager had hoped to protect himself against COVID-19 the old-fashioned way: by getting sick.

“It is infinitely preferable to have natural immunity than vaccine immunity,” Prager said, echoing an anti-vaccine argument echoed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other pro-Trump figures who have turned coronavirus vaccination into a culture war that, public health officials say, could prolong the pandemic for everyone.

Prager is wrong, suggests a new study published on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that finds that natural immunity offers far weaker protection than does a vaccine. The new study finds that people who had natural immunity from having recently fought off COVID-19 and who were not vaccinated were 5.49 times more likely to experience another COVID-19 infection than were vaccinated people who had not previously been infected.

“The data demonstrate that vaccination can provide a higher, more robust, and more consistent level of immunity to protect people from hospitalization for COVID-19 than infection alone for at least 6 months,” a CDC press release said.

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccination in the arm.
A person receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

The new study runs counter to an Israeli analysis, made public in August, that suggested the opposite, with natural immunity seemingly offering greater protection than vaccination.

“Vaccine-induced immunity is way better than infection and recovery, what some call weirdly ‘natural immunity,’” Baylor College of Medicine infectious disease expert Dr. Peter J. Hotez tweeted on Friday afternoon. “The anti-vaccine and far right groups go ballistic, but it's the reality.”

It was a reality public health officials were eager to highlight, given the continued resistance of some Americans to coronavirus inoculations. “We now have additional evidence that reaffirms the importance of COVID-19 vaccines, even if you have had prior infection,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement that accompanied the release of the new findings. "This study adds more to the body of knowledge demonstrating the protection of vaccines against severe disease from COVID-19.”

About 192 million people in the United States have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the CDC. That figure comprises a 58 percent share of the American population, which most epidemiologists believe is not high enough to prevent community spread.

The study looked at 7,000 patients hospitalized with “COVID-19-like illness” across nine states in the first nine months of 2021. Some of these patients had been vaccinated; although the coronavirus vaccines are exceptionally good at protecting against hospitalization, they are not perfect, especially when it comes to vulnerable or older individuals.

A person holds a sign reading
A protester against vaccine mandates and vaccine passports in New York City on Sept. 27. (David "Dee" Delgado/Reuters)

(The study included only recipients of the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna; the single-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson uses an older technology and has been administered with far less frequency in the United States than its mRNA counterparts.)

The unvaccinated subjects in the study group had been previously infected with COVID-19 in the six months before the second bout, which resulted in hospitalization. Just how long natural immunity lasts has been another topic of debate and research, in addition to the strength of that immunity relative to vaccines.

The coronavirus vaccines were developed during the administration of Donald Trump, a Republican. But with President Biden, a Democrat, having largely overseen the rollout of the vaccines — as well as implementation of vaccination mandates — some Republicans have seen political benefit in challenging vaccination on ideological grounds.

In doing so, they have used “natural immunity” as an argument against vaccination. The new findings appear to weaken their case.

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