Commentary

Hansen: whatever happened to natural immunity?

by Meg Hansen

On or about April 2021, the character of human immunity seemingly changed.

On that date, the prestigious Mayo Clinic decided that the immunity acquired after COVID-19 infection is inconsequential. Before this paradigm shift, scientists believed that exposure to infections resulted in powerful and enduring protection known as adaptive or acquired immunity. The adaptive immune system is after all, a complex and integrated physiological marvel that protects the body by targeting threats with precision and accuracy.

The nation’s leading medical institution previously described on its website how survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic (“Spanish Flu”) had immunity to the H1N1 influenza virus that caused an epidemic nearly a century later. In April, that significant historical account was deleted to indicate that naturally acquired immunity has been rendered meaningless. We would have never known the date but for Internet sleuths at the American Institute for Economic Research that reported it. Then again, momentous change happens abruptly and in the dark.

Public health leaders begat this new disregard for disease-acquired immunity because rational reasoning is not politically expedient in a pandemic. The NIAID Director Anthony Fauci therefore dismisses natural immunity to COVID-19 as weak and short-lived. And, the NIH Director Francis Collins claims that it is limited in scope and cannot protect against viral variants.

Robust, Broad, Long-Lived Immunity

In fact, exposure to SARS-CoV-2 creates robust, broad, and durable immunity. An observational study (Cell Reports Medicine, July 2021) showed that patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 develop long-lived immune responses from persisting antibodies and memory B and T cells. Further, the immunity is broad based and protects against SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 variants to some degree. Other studies published in the Lancet (April 2021) and Nature (May 2021) confirm that the antibody responses are long-lived.

Consequently, prior infection offers substantial protection against reinfection. A large Danish study (Lancet, March 2021) found that reinfection occurred in less than 1 percent of COVID-19 cases. Analyses in Israel, Qatar, the UK, and the US displayed similarly rare rates of reinfection. Such immunity is not limited to mild-to-moderate cases. Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and MU Health Care determined that 0.7 percent of patients with severe COVID-19 contracted the virus again. Asthma and tobacco use were associated with reinfection in these instances.

Over 30 million people across the country have recovered from COVID-19. The prevalence of naturally acquired immunity, however, is greater than these numbers suggest. Scientists assessed SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in asymptomatic US adults and discovered that 15.9 million asymptomatic or undiagnosed COVID-19 infections had occurred as of September 30, 2020. Recent serological surveys (that screen for COVID-19 antibodies) estimate that undetected infections are four to six times as many as the diagnosed case count.

Politics Corrupts Pandemic Response

The CDC Director Rochelle Walensky diminishes the extent of natural immunity to COVID-19, while Fauci insists that the available data is not sufficient to inform policy measures. What is the purpose of discounting this potent immune defense possessed by millions? It makes mass vaccination the only means to achieve herd immunity, which has been the elusive end goal since March 2020. The experts like Collins and Fauci endorse indiscriminate vaccination, alleging that the shots “do better than nature.” The heavy-handed focus on vaccines alone harks back to how political calculations – that of profit and power – have corrupted the pandemic response.

The politics of profit extends beyond the influence exerted by much-maligned Big Pharma. Collins revealed that the NIH owns a part of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine’s intellectual property and thus has a financial stake in it. The company received $6 bn in federal funds to develop the vaccine. The politics of power entails societal control with mandatory and capricious policies, together with time-tested divide and conquer tactics. In an example of the latter, the vaccinated are afforded special freedom to demonize others.

Now that we have identified how certain parties gain from disregarding natural immunity, let us consider the impact on those who have it. The naturally infected are not exempt from vaccine mandates by government or private employers, and must observe the restrictions on travel and event attendance that apply to unvaccinated persons. Many feel compelled to get injected. But does prior SARS-CoV-2 exposure affect the vaccine-generated immune response? What are the risks and benefits? And, to whom does one turn for answers?

Vaccine Pain-Gain Analysis

Doctors have not been helpful. Opaque and inconsistent direction from public health authorities, along with concern to preserve one’s employment and licensure, has splintered medical consensus on whether COVID-19 survivors should take the vaccine. Dr. Monica Gandhi (University of California) infers from the data sets of past coronavirus epidemics that naturally acquired immunity to COVID-19 will likely last one’s lifetime, thereby making vaccination redundant. Immunologist Dr. Hooman Noorchashm strongly advocates against it on account of the vaccine’s “immunological danger” to the naturally infected.

Dr. Marty Makary (Johns Hopkins School of Medicine) advises that one shot of a two-dose vaccine should suffice, though it may not be necessary. He cites research by the Penn Institute of Immunology (Science Immunology, April 2021), which showed that the first dose produced peak antibody and memory B cell responses in COVID-19 recovered subjects. The second dose of the mRNA vaccine had no effect. Clinicians at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles demonstrated similar effects after the first dose (Nature Medicine, April 2021).

Notably, the L.A. team found that vaccine-induced side effects were more prominent in the previously infected after the first dose. A February 2021 global survey of vaccine recipients (26.6 percent of the 2002 respondents had recovered from COVID-19) indicated that past SARS-CoV-2 exposure led to an increased risk of post-vaccine adverse effects (fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, and flu-like illness), local reactions, and severe symptoms resulting in hospitalization.

The scientific risk-benefit considerations of COVID-19 vaccines aside, the naturally infected are hardly free to choose. There is only one choice and it will be forced on them by mounting economic and social pressures.

The author is the former executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a health policy think tank. She holds a medical degree from India, her native country, and a master’s degree from Dartmouth College. She ran for state senator and lieutenant governor in 2020.

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