Let's not do this again
Natural immunity vs. the vaccines, and why you should be thinking about shingles
Congressmember Clay Higgins of Louisiana says he has contracted Covid-19 for a second time. It's likely a moment of personal anxiety, and all people of goodwill should hope for his speedy recovery. Whatever the Representative wants to say about his apparent reinfection, it's not hard to draw a connection between his announcement and the memo from the attending physician for Congress asking the House of Representatives to resume mask-wearing.
■ One of the major hangups over vaccination appears to be this particular cloudiness about natural immunity. Some people who had (or at least think they had) Covid-19 believe they are sufficiently protected by natural immunity that it isn't necessary for them to take one of the available vaccines. But Rep. Higgins illustrates the peril of that approach: Either he did have Covid-19 before and he got it again (meaning that natural immunity failed him) or he mistook some other virus for Covid-19 and was misled into relying on natural immunity.
■ We plainly do not know conclusively whether this natural immunity is durable. The World Health Organization says most people who survive Covid-19 have antibodies within four weeks of infection. The CDC says we just don't know how long that protection might last. The WHO says the strength and duration of that natural immunity varies depending on the patient and the severity of the symptoms, and that there's no strong evidence supporting more than a few months of sustained protection. That might change with further evidence, but for now, confidence wanes after 8 months.
■ The word "novel" has meant a lot when applied to this "novel" coronavirus: We don't know everything about it yet, and circumstances are changing as we go. One of those things that has changed is the arrival of the "Delta" variant. It is much better at spreading itself than its predecessors. It spreads 50% faster than the Alpha variant, which spread 50% faster than the original virus.
■ People who may have counted upon natural immunity before deserve to know the facts: The new variant is an accelerant. It makes circumstances much more hazardous than before for people who are not protected by a vaccine. And make no mistake about it: The available vaccines are keeping people out of harm's way. The odds of dying from Covid-19 after vaccination fall literally into the 1-in-200,000 range. By comparison, your odds of dying in a car crash are about 1 in 9,000. That's more than a full order of magnitude of difference in risk, and yet most everyone still gets on the road.
■ Material facts about the disease have changed, and as Dwight Eisenhower once said regarding war, "Rigidity inevitably defeats itself, and the analysts who point to a changed detail as evidence of a plan's weakness are completely unaware of the characteristics of the battlefield." The material facts here are that new cases are picking up because of the new variant, but it's almost exclusively a serious risk to the unvaccinated.
■ Some people have been hesitant to get vaccinated over fears of unknown side effects, but they ought to know that side effects simply don't show up long after vaccines are administered. Serious side effects from any vaccine have only happened within a few weeks -- or a handful of months, tops. And in particular, it's notable that the mRNA vaccines are eliminated by the body almost immediately, even though the immune system gets to work building protection.
■ But while there's no known mechanism by which a vaccine will come back to haunt you by surprise years later, we've long known that some viruses can linger and cause further damage long after the initial infection. If you've had chickenpox, you could get shingles later. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can later give you cancer. Long-term infections by the hepatitis virus can cause liver failure.
■ We already know that some people are experiencing "long Covid", and there's no guarantee Covid-19 won't turn out to be as insidious as, for instance, the chickenpox-shingles connection. And we know that viruses can mutate right around natural immunity -- it's why we haven't yet cured the common cold. Taken what we already know through hard experience, avoiding Covid is the only rational thing to do.
■ So, on one side of the risk equation, we have a virus that is spreading much faster than it did before, uncertainty about the long-term consequences of the disease, and no reason for high confidence in sustained natural immunity. On the other, we have vaccines that have been administered to billions of people with extremely good track records of both safety and efficacy.
■ We don't know whether natural immunity protects people for long (and if Rep. Higgins is right, that confidence should be waning), but we know with extraordinary (and continually growing) confidence that the vaccines do. When the facts change, reasonable people should be open to changing their minds.