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Federal health officials are urging Americans to boost their immunity before the winter break by getting a boost vaccine for COVID-19. But not everyone is working with the same protections when it comes to keeping the virus at bay.
More than 47 million people in the US have already been affected by the coronavirus, at least according to officially registered numbers. In reality, there are probably many millions more.
An unspecified portion of those people are also vaccinated, which means they now have what scientists call hybrid immunity. This is what happens when your immune system has essentially done a clothing test to avoid the virus courtesy of the vaccine and a real performance thanks to the virus.
So if you have already had a symptomatic case of COVID-19, do you really need an amp?
Perhaps it is not a shock that scientists are not yet completely sure. Amplifiers have not been available for long for most Americans, and studies to understand how necessary they are for everyone, let alone for those who have been infected and vaccinated still need to be done.
But scientists say their best guess is that, by all accounts, people with hybrid immunity already have better immunity than vaccinated people who never got COVID-19 or people who got COVID-19 but not the vaccine.
“It is fair to say that your immunity is likely to be stronger, so the chance of getting sick, especially with the delta variant, is very, very low,” he says. Dr. Duane Wesemann, an immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Think about how to play an instrument
Think of the immune system and the coronavirus as you would learn an instrument: Practice once and you will remember the song the next day, but if you stop, maybe not a year later. “The same principles apply to the immune system,” says Wesemann. “You will spend more time, invest more effort to keep something you have seen several times.”
And if you are infected and vaccinated, this is already very practical.
However, just because you have this stronger immunity, does not mean that it is a bad idea to get a booster. This is especially true if you are already predisposed to developing severe COVID-19, he says John Wherry, director of the Institute of Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania.
All of this is still being studied, but Wherry says there is no reason to think it would be dangerous for people with hybrid immunity to take an extra hit.
“The safety profile looks quite similar during primary vaccination and boosters and does not appear to be terribly different depending on whether you have had COVID before or not,” he says.
Our best view of the powers of hybrid immunity comes from the study of people who became infected and then vaccinated, what some scientists have even described as “superhuman immunity.”
“It kind of looks like you’re already getting a pretty dramatic booster,” Wherry says. “They would probably be the lowest on my priority list of who needs reinforcements.”
Research shows that people with this type of hybrid immunity produce more antibodies, and this response is not only more stable, but that it is really powerful in all variants, says Wesemann, whose lab has has studied the immune response in people who have been infected and subsequently vaccinated.
What if a person had a new infection?
What about a person’s level of protection against the opposite scenario, when a fully vaccinated person later has a widespread infection? “You would probably have superior immunity at this point,” says Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group.
Most likely, this brand of hybrid immunity will rival what is seen in people who were cured of COVID-19 and then vaccinated, but there may be subtle differences in the details of the immune response, Wherry says. “But these things that may be different may not matter to any particular person to avoid the next infection.”
All of this needs to be studied to arrive at a more definitive answer. Until then, food intake is the same no matter how you achieve hybrid immunity: There is no great urgency to get a booster for people who are otherwise healthy and at low risk. But if you are at higher risk due to underlying conditions, or living or working closely with someone who is, this can be a good added layer of protection for you and those around you.
“The potential benefits of offering greater immunity are there and the risks are small,” says Wesemann. “I would probably recommend it to a group of individuals I thought were at high risk.”
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