COVID vaccine or natural infection: which protects you better?

Many people have caught COVID-19 over the past 20 months, despite their best efforts, or because they didn’t take enough precautions against the coronavirus. 

Data is just starting to emerge about how protected they may be against another infection.

As with most illnesses, contracting COVID-19 provides immune “memory” that helps protect against a future infection. But it’s still unclear how sick a person has to get with COVID-19 to develop enough immune memory to be protective and for how long. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends even people who have had COVID-19 get vaccinated against it.

A growing body of research suggests infection plus vaccination provides the strongest protection against a wide range of variants, possibly for a long time. 

People who were infected and then vaccinated some months later have “what’s called ‘hybrid immunity,’ which is like super-immunity,” said Warner Greene, a virologist at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

This combined protection seems to last a long time, according to a new study in the journal Science. It may last far longer than vaccination alone, he said, though that hasn’t been proven yet.

Bradley Sharp, of Saratoga, New York, gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from registered nurse Stephanie Wagner in New York.

Greene warns against seeking out infection to get such good protection, though. Severe disease is no fun and can strike anyone.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Monica Gandhi said public health officials too often downplay the protection provided by infection. 

“To deny natural immunity does not generate trust,” said Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital.

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