We know that natural infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused COVID-19, generates some immunity. Should you rely on this for protection and skip the vaccine if you were previously infected? The answer is a clear ‘no’.
Natural immunity is inconsistent and not as strong as the protection offered by currently available COVID-19 vaccines. Both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines cut the risk of COVID-19 by about 95%. They also appear to be almost 100% effective for preventing hospital admission and death.
It is too soon to know how long the vaccine protection will last, but studies have shown high antibody levels for at least four months. Our experience with other vaccines suggests this protection could last for many more months or even years. In contrast, the level of protection after natural infection is not clear, and people with milder illness may have less protection with lower antibody levels.
“How long the vaccine protection lasts is truly one of the biggest questions we have yet to answer,” said Dr. Edward Belongia, an epidemiologist with Marshfield Clinic Research Institute who conducts research on COVID-19. “If you have been sick with COVID-19 or even if you just tested positive for antibodies, you should still get the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Putting things into perspective
The vaccine is very safe and the benefits far outweigh the risks. It helps to put the risk in perspective.
More than 27 million people have had COVID-19 in the U.S., and nearly 500,000 have died from the virus.
Health care providers understand the suffering caused by COVID-19, and it is especially hard on families who cannot visit in person.
Let’s compare the risk of natural infection with the risk of vaccination:
Over 32 million people have been vaccinated so far in the US, and none have died due to the vaccine.
After tens of millions of doses, no serious safety issues have been found except very rare allergic reactions. This includes people with serious diseases like diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease. Of course, we don’t take safety for granted and monitoring for unexpected problems will continue as more people get vaccinated.
Will the vaccines protect from the new variants?
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have not been directly tested against the new variant strains found in the UK or South Africa, but antibody tests suggest that both vaccines will provide a high level of protection against the UK variant, but protection may be lower for the South Africa variant.
Another vaccine made by Novavax was 60% effective against the South Africa variant. The bottom line is that we expect most vaccines to provide some protection against these variants, and protection against serious illness may still be high. Booster doses may be needed in the future to maintain immunity as the viruses continue to evolve.
For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine, talk to your provider. Additional answers to common questions can be found at by clicking here.