Over 5 billion people worldwide have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since the vaccines were developed and approved. This number translates to about 70% of the total population of the world. COVID-19 vaccines have played a central role in our effort to combat the coronavirus and protect lives.
However, more than two years after the successful launch of the first COVID vaccine, some individuals are still hesitant to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, there are a number of myths and misconceptions out there about vaccines that have no basis in science.
At the same time, many people have legitimate questions about whether COVID vaccines are necessary when a person already has the antibodies to the virus in their bloodstream. In this guide, we will address these questions and concerns. We will also focus on the benefits of vaccines and their impact on our immune system.
Do I Still Need the Vaccine If I Have Had COVID?
This question is commonly raised based on the concept of “natural immunity” – if you get infected with COVID-19 and survive, you have antibodies against the virus in your system. The argument then is that the next time you get the virus, the immune response from these antibodies will offer you protection.
Regrettably, this is a myth. Studies actually show that people who recover from COVID and don’t get the vaccine are more than 2 times as likely to catch COVID again when compared to other people who are fully vaccinated.
You absolutely need a vaccine whether you have had COVID in the past or not. For maximum protection, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a full course of one of the four approved COVID-19 vaccines – Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, Novavax, or Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen – plus the latest vaccine boosters.
While the concept of natural immune response is real, it is not the same for everyone – in some folks, the immunity will last several months. In others, it will disappear within a few weeks. In comparison, COVID-19 vaccines offer a higher level of protection across all vaccinated individuals.
Simply put, a COVID-19 infection is highly unreliable as your source of immunity. Vaccines are more predictable and do a much better job. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at immunity, antibodies, infectious diseases, and how vaccines actually work.
What Are Antibodies?
When any virus or bacteria enters the body, it is the job of our immune system to fight this infection and kill the germs. To do this, the immune system uses white blood cells and special Y-shaped proteins – the antibodies. They are also called immunoglobulins, or Ig for short.
Antibodies are created by a special type of white blood cells in our bone marrow, called B cells. These B cells can create five main types of antibodies, each with a unique function and role in the immune system:
- Immunoglobulin G or IgG – the smallest and most common antibodies; they travel all over the body and play a central role in fighting bacteria and viruses.
- Immunoglobulin M or IgM – the largest antibodies; they travel through the blood and lymph nodes to attack bacteria.
- Immunoglobulin A or IgA – located in the mucus membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, etc., these antibodies act as the first line of defense against outside threats.
- Immunoglobulin D or IgD – a little-known antibody that may play a vital role in helping B cells.
- Immunoglobulin E or IgE – a small number of antibodies found in the lungs and skin; they play a role in creating allergic reactions in some people.
How Do Antibodies Help Fight an Infection?
The duty of killing viruses and bacteria is handled by the different white blood cells called phagocytes and T cells. Antibodies play a critical role in helping these white blood cells carry out their job:
- Some antibodies stick to the surface of viruses and bacteria, helping to make them inactive.
- Other antibodies stick to the viruses/bacteria to make them visible to other white blood cells.
- Some antibodies also make bacterial cells explode, making it easier for the body to fight the infection.
The body of a virus or bacteria contains toxic proteins that cause a bad reaction in the human body. These protein particles are unique to each germ and are called antigens. Our body can identify a germ based on its antigen. You can think of them as a kind of ID card for a virus or bacteria.
The antibody proteins seek out these outsiders and latch onto their proteins, either destroying them or preventing them from attacking healthy cells. The body produces antibodies until the virus or bacteria is gone, but those antibodies can linger in the system for months.
What Are the Different Types of Immunity?
Immunity is the ability of the human body to successfully fight a viral or bacterial infection. Over our lifetime, we acquire immunity in several different ways. We can broadly divide immunity into two main types – innate and adaptive immunity.
This is the immunity that we are born with as infants. A baby’s body is protected by basic antibodies in its skin, mouth, lungs, and so forth. It also has the basic system of B cells, T cells, and antibodies in its bone marrow.
In the early years of a child’s development, the immune system is weak because it does not yet know ways to fight a specific virus or bacteria. The immune system only has the same basic approach in dealing with most diseases and infections.
Over time, our immune systems get stronger as a result of various life experiences our body goes through. We can divide adaptive immunity into two different categories:
- Passive Immunity: Certain substances can directly add new antibodies to our system and boost immunity. The best example of this is breast milk – it is rich in antibodies that give a major boost to a baby’s immune system.
- Active Immunity: This type of immunity is gained within the body. When you get immunity by successfully fighting an infection, it is called natural immunity. Immunity acquired through vaccination is called artificial immunity.
Difference Between Antibodies and Vaccines
Antibodies are unique proteins that help our body fight the natural infection of bacteria and viruses. Once our body fights a new virus, some of the antibodies remain in the body for a long time. This helps preserve a “memory” of how to fight that virus again if it comes back and reinfects the body in the future.
A vaccine is made up of dead or deactivated viruses or bacteria. It contains proteins unique to a particular germ. When you inject these harmless proteins into the body of someone who has never caught that disease, the following things happen:
- The immune system will think that a real virus/bacteria is infecting the body.
- It will send antibodies and white blood cells to “kill” the “virus”.
- This process creates a “memory” in the body’s white blood cells.
- In the future, if the real virus attacks, the body knows exactly how to counter it.
Why Use Vaccines When We Have Natural Immunity?
It’s true that antibodies you get from natural immunity can offer good protection against future infections. Before the invention of vaccines, this was how humanity survived deadly infectious diseases for thousands of years.
Then again, only being able to rely on natural immunity also meant that more people died or became disabled in their childhood due to diseases like tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis, tetanus, small pox, and many more. The CDC estimates that we save about 4 million lives through childhood vaccinations each year and that immunization will prevent over 51 million deaths in the coming decade.
The natural immune response is not at all as reliable. It is like a “trial by fire” for many infectious diseases – if you get ill, there is a chance that you might die or suffer a lifelong disability. If you do survive unscathed, you may get some immunity, but it is not always life-long protection.
Various factors can determine your chances of successfully beating disease the first time and getting longer lasting immunity. They include:
- Your age
- Your general health and the strength of your immune system
- The type of bacteria/virus
- Other unknown genetic factors
Trying to build natural immunity without any vaccines is like sending your army to fight a war without any training or knowledge of the enemy. Sure, you may win the war by shear luck, but the risk of failure or lasting damage is much higher.
In contrast, a vaccine uses a portion of the virus that has been made completely harmless, yet can help your body train its immune system to fight the actual virus/bacteria if or when it infects your body.
COVID-19 and Immunity From Coronavirus Antibodies
It’s vital to understand that COVID-19 is not the same as the ordinary flu. The flu virus has been around us for at least 1,500 years. Over time, we have developed some natural immunity against this disease and it is estimated that flu antibodies for a particular variant can stay in our bodies for nearly 90 years.
On the other hand, COVID-19 is a brand new disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The virus that causes COVID belongs to a family of viruses called the coronavirus. This particular variant was first seen in humans only in 2019.
As it was a new and unfamiliar virus, humans didn’t have any natural immunity when the pandemic broke out in 2020 and there was little information to help combat this disease. Subsequent antibody tests have revealed that people who survive their first COVID-19 infection do get antibody responses for at least several months.
Healthy antibody responses after natural infection can include the following things:
- More circulating IgA, IgM, and IgG proteins in blood during antibody tests.
- Better T cell response.
- B cells make antibodies when needed.
According to most antibody tests, the immune response decreases significantly after just three months. The effectiveness of natural infection in providing immunity is based on several factors:
- Your age at the time of prior infection – seniors had a lower immune response.
- Patients with severe illness had a higher immune response.
- Cancer patients and immunocompromised individuals had a lower response.
- Whether you had a symptomatic infection or not – asymptomatic had a lower response.
Numerous studies have been reviewed by the CDC and other bodies to assess immunity after a past infection of COVID-19. They all indicate that natural immune response protection only lasts for several months in previously infected individuals who haven’t received their vaccinations.
In one-third of all previously infected individuals who had not had a vaccine dose, there was no natural immunity after a few months.
Why You Need COVID-19 Vaccines for the Best Protection
The unique thing about the COVID-19 virus is a spike protein that allows it to spread more freely and infect more cells while avoiding the immune system. Most COVID-19 vaccines work by targeting this spike protein, offering better protection against serious illness.
Antibody testing shows some interesting results regarding the benefits of COVID vaccines:
- The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reduce the risk of severe illness in COVID-19 patients by 90%.
- The protection provided by a vaccination lasts longer than immunity from natural infections.
- A combination of COVID-19 vaccination and prior infection provided the best protection against future infection.
- Even if you have not had a previous infection, vaccination can reduce your risk of infection and hospitalization.
There is no question about vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19. Over 225 million Americans have received both doses of a primary series mRNA vaccine and the rate of infection has drastically decreased compared to the early days of the pandemic.
Natural Immunity and New COVID-19 Variants
With the rise of new circulating variants, getting a COVID-19 vaccine has become even more important than ever before. As the virus spreads across communities, it changes its structure through mutations.
This gives rise to newer variants of the COVID-19 virus. Antibody tests indicate that previous infections by older variants of COVID-19 do not provide adequate protection against these new variants.
Taking this into account, the mRNA vaccines have demonstrated good protection against the Delta variant and other new COVID-19 strains. The CDC recommends that all individuals above age 6 months complete the primary series of the vaccines, followed by the available booster shots at the appropriate intervals.
VNA Health Care Is the Trusted Provider for All Your COVID-19 Vaccine Needs
Under the latest CDC/FDA safety communication guidelines, to remain fully protected and up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines, you have to do the following:
- Take your primary series (minimum 2 doses) of Pfizer, Moderna, or Novavax vaccines.
- Take an updated bivalent booster if eligible.
You can book an appointment for both your primary series and booster dose COVID-19 vaccinations at VNA Health Care.
Vaccination slots are available in clinic locations in the early morning, daytime, evening, and weekend hours. If you have had a recent positive test result (PCR or antigen tests, not an antibody test), or have a current infection, please wait at least 3 months before getting your vaccine shot. For any other vaccine-related queries, or to book your appointment, give us a call at (630) 892-4355 or use the link provided on this page.