(Kaiser Health News) According to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other medical experts, those who already developed antibodies by contracting the coronavirus not only can skip the vaccines, but they likely are better protected.
Recently, Paul posted a Twitter thread that people who have survived a COVID-19 infection were unlikely to be reinfected and have better immunity against variants than those who have been vaccinated against—but not infected by—the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Great news! Cleveland clinic study of 52,238 employees shows unvaccinated people who have had COVID 19 have no difference in re-infection rate than people who had COVID 19 and who took the vaccine.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) June 8, 2021
However, some in the scientific bureaucracy—which maintains deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry—were quick to condemn the libertarian lawmaker, an outspoken nemesis of COVID czar Anthony Fauci.
With the Biden administration poised to fall short in its most precise vaccine objective—achieving 70% inoculation by July 4—the notion of re-implementing economy-wrecking lockdowns or face-mask mandates seems unlikely as many have already put the pandemic behind them.
But while almost 65% of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, the remaining 35% promises to be deeply elusive in a climate where the virus response is now a political wedge issue and lingering concerns remain over the possible side-effects, particularly in those under 30.
The fact that scientists like Fauci have been less than forthright in providing all the facts only deepens the level of suspicion. And many prefer, instead, to follow the science instead of the scientists.
The concept of vaccination normally has been to use a small, nonlethal dosage of a virus strain to coax the body into developing its own immunity.
Two of the existing COVID vaccines—Pfizer and Moderna—instead are seeking to reprogram genetic material so that it will train the body to develop an immune response. Other vaccines, likewise, try to avoid dealing with direct strains of the highly contagious, likely human-engineered virus.
Yet, some who already have recovered from COVID are opting for the old-fashioned approach, arguing that it would be redundant for them to get shot if antibodies already are present.
Paul—a medical doctor by trade who was the first senator to be diagnosed with the virus—is among them.
In his first tweet as part of the June 8 thread, Paul referenced a recent Cleveland Clinic study. It found that among subjects who were unvaccinated but had already had COVID-19, there were no re-infections in a five-month observation period.
In subsequent tweets, the senator said: “The immune response to natural infection is highly likely to provide protective immunity even against the SARS-CoV-2 variants. … Thus, recovered COVID-19 patients are likely to better defend against the variants than persons who have not been infected but have been immunized with spike-containing vaccines only.”
At the end of his final tweet, Rand then linked to a second study led by scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to support his assertions.
Digesting the Scientific Papers
Paul referenced two scientific papers in his tweet thread — both of which are preprints, meaning they have not yet been published in scientific journals or been peer-reviewed.
The first, a study from the Cleveland Clinic following four categories of health care workers: unvaccinated but previously infected; unvaccinated but not previously infected; vaccinated and previously infected; and vaccinated but not previously infected. The workers were followed for five months.
The researchers found that no one who was unvaccinated but had previously been infected with COVID became infected again during the five-month study period. Infections were almost zero among those who were vaccinated, while there was a steady increase in infections among those who were unvaccinated and previously uninfected.
When asked whether he believed Paul’s tweet had interpreted his study results correctly, the study’s lead author, Nabin Shrestha, an infectious diseases specialist at Cleveland Clinic, said “it was an accurate interpretation of the study’s findings.”
However, George Rutherford—an epidemiologist at the ideologically leftist University of California, San Francisco—wrote in an email that he would add one caveat to the wording of Paul’s tweet.
“Note that in his tweet Senator Paul seems to suggest that the denominator of previously infected health care workers at the Cleveland Clinic was 52,238—that was the total number in the whole study,” Rutherford said. “There were 1,359 that were previously infected and never vaccinated, and there were no reinfections noted over a median follow up of 143 days. So, the tweet itself is accurate if read literally but the denominator is really 1,359.”
In essence, the data can only be used to make generalizations about a specific subset of roughly 2% the population for whom both conditions apply—those who have contracted the virus but remain unvaccinated.
As for the other study Paul mentioned, researchers analyzed COVID-19 immunity in those who had been infected with the COVID virus and those who hadn’t. They found that infection activated a range of immune cells and immunity lasted at least eight months.
In his last two tweets in the thread, Paul quotes directly from the study’s “discussion” section: “The immune response to natural infection is highly likely to provide protective immunity even against the SARS-CoV-2 variants. … Thus, recovered COVID-19 patients are likely to better defend against the variants than persons who have not been infected but have been immunized with spike-containing vaccines only.”
The lead study author, Kristen Cohen, a senior staff scientist in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, acknowledged that Paul’s tweet was a direct quote from the study.
But she cautioned that the quote might be taken out of context to suit an objective that did not accurately reflect the overall take-home message from the study’s findings.
Cohen said its purpose here, in the paper’s final section, was to project what the study’s findings could imply for a broader scientific significance.
“We wrote that recovering covid patients are ‘likely’ to better defend against variants than those who have just been immunized, but it’s not saying they do,” said Cohen. “It’s not saying they have been known to. It’s making a hypothesis or basically saying this could be the case.”
In fact, Cohen’s study did not include any subjects who had been vaccinated. The researchers were merely reasoning that, based on the data showing the immune system’s broad natural response, those who recover from COVID-19 and then receive a vaccine may be better protected against COVID variants than those who had only vaccine-induced immunity.
“We did not intend to argue that infected people do not need to get vaccinated or that their immune responses are superior,” Cohen wrote in an email.
Cohen said she will eliminate the sentence from the paper when it gets submitted for publication.
She also pointed to another Fred Hutchinson-led study with which she was involved that showed people who previously had COVID-19 benefited from getting vaccinated because there was a significant boost in immune response, especially against variants.
Fauci reiterated this message during a White House covid-19 briefing last month.
With current guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraging those who had the virus already to be vaccinated, it is unlikely that any studies seeking CDC grant funding would be in a great rush to include in their studies any research that would potentially contradict it.
However, arguments over risk-mitigation go both ways.
The absence of data does not discount the evidence indicating that those with natural antibodies do not need the vaccine—and that it may be redundant, at best, or lead to unforeseen problems related to the vaccine that, likewise, have yet to be studied.
The Conventional Wisdom on Natural Immunity
What medical experts agree upon concerning these two studies is that surviving a COVID infection confers a significant amount of immunity against the virus. Other studies also support this assertion.
“Existing literature does show natural immunity provides protection against COVID-19,” said Shane Crotty, a professor at the Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology who has published numerous peer-reviewed studies on natural immunity against COVID-19.
Crotty said such immunity particularly protects against hospitalizations and severe illness.
In Crotty’s own recent study, the largest yet to measure the molecules and cells involved in immune protection, his team found that natural immunity against COVID lasted at least eight months. Based on projections, it could last up to a couple of years.
While that is good news, Crotty said, there are three points of caution.
First, though natural immunity appears to be very effective against the current dominant U.S. variant (known as alpha), it also appears weaker than vaccine immunity against some of the variants circulating, such as the delta variant, first detected in India.
That means if those variants eventually become dominant in the U.S., people relying on natural immunity might be less protected than those who are vaccinated.
Second, due to scientists’ aversion to conducting politically sensitive research within the left-leaning academic community, there is a lack of data about whether natural immunity prevents asymptomatic transmission and infection. Several other studies, though, show vaccines do.
Third, Crotty said his studies have shown that levels of natural immunity can vary widely in individuals. His team even found a hundredfold difference in the number of immune cells among people.
“If you thought about the immune system as a basketball game and you thought about that as a team scoring 1 point, and another team scoring 100 points, that’s a big difference,” said Crotty. “We’re not so confident that people at the low end of immunity levels would be as protected against COVID-19.”
But those who receive a vaccine shot have a much more consistent number of immune cells, since everyone receives the same dose amount, said Crotty.