With the highly transmissible versions of Omicron now causing nearly all of the COVID-19 infections in the U.S., most people have likely gotten infected, even if they’ve been vaccinated and boosted. Many people wonder if they should get the Omicron-specific booster shots. Most people rightly assume that after recovery, they’ve built up a pretty good immunity to the virus.
While that’s true, researchers are learning more about the different types of immunity that natural infection with the virus provides, compared to that afforded by the vaccines and boosters. Research shows that people develop strong virus-fighting antibodies after being exposed to a specific strain of SARS. This response might be sufficient to offer protection against other strains. Your immune system will respond to each of the proteins made by the virus when you become infected. When you’re vaccinated, on the other hand, the body only responds to the viral targets that the vaccines target, which is a more limited set of viral genes. That’s why the original vaccine, which contained genetic information from the first widely circulating strain of SARS-CoV-2, no longer appears to protect people from getting infected with the latest variants of the virus, specifically Omicron BA.4/5.
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However, natural infections can have some potential advantages. The amount of virus that the body is exposed to also influences the immune system. If someone has been exposed to large amounts of SARSCoV-2, their immune system will respond more strongly. That means that not all natural infections are created equal, and there is generally no way for people to know how much exposure they have had once they’ve been infected. That information comes from lab-based PCR tests, which measure viral load, and most people aren’t going to doctors’ offices, clinics, or hospitals for COVID-19 testing anymore, instead self-testing at home with rapid antigen tests, which aren’t designed to provide information on viral load.
A 2021 study found that not all virus-fighting antibodies are produced in people infected. This was despite the fact that about a third of participants in the trial were recruited from volunteers at University of Alabama at Birmingham. Researchers found that people with Omicron variants were more susceptible to developing antibodies if they had more severe symptoms. Many people are not affected by the virus and may have produced minimal antibodies.
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There’s also the question of how long protection from natural infection lasts. Regardless of whether you’ve been naturally infected or vaccinated, studies are showing that antibody levels, which are the first line of defense in protecting against infection, wane after several months. It’s also possible that vaccines produce a deeper type of immunity that involves not only antibodies but another type of immune cell called T cells that can remember and mount aggressive responses to a virus it recognizes if people get infected again. The risk of being reinfected by COVID-19-infected people was twofold higher for those who were not vaccinated.
The bottom line is that any immunity, whether from natural infection or vaccines, doesn’t last forever. COVID-19 has a young disease. Researchers are still trying out to figure out how and why the body is so sensitive to the virus. As that data grows, the most reasonable strategy at this point is to keep boosting immunity in order to gain the most protection possible from both getting infected with SARS-CoV-2 or becoming severely ill. That means getting booster doses even if you’ve been infected, about three months after you recover.
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