- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not made an official recommendation on whether people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 should be vaccinated.
- People who have had COVID-19 may still benefit from a vaccine because we don’t know how long immunity lasts after you get better.
- The vaccines weren’t specifically tested on people who had recovered from COVID-19, so it’s unclear what the side effects would be in this population.
Millions of people around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19 this year. Now that a COVID vaccine is on the horizon, many are wondering: Am I already immune?
There’s not a hard-and-fast answer to that question at the moment. But here’s what we know about whether people who’ve had COVID-19 need to get the vaccine.
I’ve already had COVID-19 and recovered — will I need the vaccine?
Right now, the CDC does not have an official recommendation on whether or not people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 should get one of the new COVID-19 vaccines.
To decide, they’ll need to consider a number of issues, including how much natural immunity people have after they recover from a COVID-19 infection. And this is a question that still does not have a straightforward answer.
But even though there is no official recommendation yet, it’s possible that some people who recovered from COVID-19 may want to consider getting a vaccine. Here’s why.
- When you catch COVID, your body makes antibodies that find and destroy the coronavirus in your system. That means you will have COVID-19 antibodies after infection. At least in the short term, these antibodies will protect you from catching it again. They will also keep you from spreading the virus to others.
- But those antibody levels decrease over time. For some people, they might drop so low they’ll stop being helpful. This seems to be particularly true in people who had very mild cases of COVID, or had no symptoms at all. There has been a great deal of discussion about research that shows immunity fading quickly in some people who have recovered from COVID-19.
- If your immunity fades, you could be at risk for catching COVID-19 a second time. And there’ve been a number of reports of people getting COVID again. In some cases, the second infection was worse than the first one.
What are the benefits and risks of getting the vaccine after recovering from COVID-19?
For most people, the benefits of getting a COVID-19 vaccine will outweigh the risks. If you’ve already had COVID-19 and recovered, you’ll have a few additional things to think about when it’s your turn to get the vaccine.
A COVID-19 vaccine could offer you some benefits:
- It will deliver a predictable immune-boost, so the strength and duration of your immunity won’t be left to chance.
- Since COVID-19 testing was difficult to get — and the results were sometimes questionable — during the early months of the pandemic, it might not be clear whether or not you actually had COVID. Getting vaccinated can eliminate the guesswork.
- It’s possible some people in high-risk situations might be asked to show paperwork or other evidence of immunity. If this is you, getting a vaccine might be the most straightforward way to get the documentation you need.
There are potential downsides, too. Here are the risks:
- The COVID-19 vaccines haven’t been well-studied yet in people who have recovered from COVID. While the vaccine developers are reporting mild to moderate side effects in their study groups, many of those groups did not include people who had already fought off COVID. (This makes sense, because it was important to measure the immunity each vaccine could create on its own.) It’s possible the side effects of a vaccine could be stronger in someone who already has an immune response.
- If vaccines are in short supply, it’s possible that people with immunity could be a lower priority for vaccination. How this might be determined, and how it could affect you, will come down to policy decisions made by our government and health leaders.
Which is more effective: natural immunity or the vaccine?
In the long run, getting a well-crafted vaccine will be a safer option than catching COVID. But from an immunity standpoint, could there be a hidden benefit to having gotten infected naturally?
This question can’t be answered yet. Right now, very few people have long-term immunity of any kind, so it’s hard to compare the two. However, there are some interesting things to consider as we learn more.
The COVID-19 vaccines may produce more targeted antibodies
With natural immunity, your body makes antibodies against a variety of features of the virus. COVID-19 vaccines are designed to trigger antibodies that hone in on a certain molecular target — in most cases, the coronavirus spike protein.
The spike protein is part of what makes this virus so deadly, and antibodies that recognize it seem to be particularly effective at neutralizing it. It’s possible this targeted approach will lead to a stronger immune response in people who have had the vaccine.
Antibodies aren’t the whole picture when it comes to your immune response
Our bodies also make specialized immune system cells — T cells and B cells — that work with antibodies to fight infections. These cells have longer memories than antibodies, and their job is to stand ready over time.
While natural COVID-19 infections result in memory cells sometimes, we don’t know yet how sick you have to be before this mechanism kicks in. It’s possible that having a mild case of COVID just doesn’t get you this level of protection. Looking for these specialized cells is tricky and isn’t something that’s usually done outside of a research study.
Triggering this cellular immunity — in addition to antibody, or humoral, immunity — is a goal for vaccine makers. A vaccine that does both is going to be a good bet for long-term protection.
The bottom line
Right now it’s not clear if people who have recovered from COVID-19 should get in line for a vaccine. As we learn more about the roles of both vaccines and natural infection in creating long-term immunity to COVID-19, we’ll all be in a better position to make an informed decision.