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How do COVID-19 vaccine antibodies differ from ones produced from a natural infection?

This article was published on
April 22, 2021

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The COVID-19 antibodies that your body develops from getting vaccinated are mostly the same kind of antibodies you develop from an infection.

The COVID-19 antibodies that your body develops from getting vaccinated are mostly the same kind of antibodies you develop from an infection.

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What our experts say

COVID-19 vaccines help people build up protection to the virus without having to get sick and risk illness or death. We still need more time and evidence to know how long immunity will last following a COVID-19 vaccination. Evidence currently suggests that the immunity that's built up from a COVID-19 vaccine stays steady for about six months—and it's predicted to last even longer than that.

Similarly, if you are exposed to the COVID-19 virus (not the vaccine) and build up natural immunity, the next time you're exposed your antibodies will likely disarm the virus so you don't get infected or have symptoms. In less common cases, you would at least be protected from a more severe case of COVID-19.

We don’t yet know exactly how protective “natural” antibodies are, and for how long. We do know that there have been very few cases of COVID-19 reinfection, suggesting that immunity after natural infection may be significant. Some researchers estimate that immunity against COVID-19 infection might last from one to three years, but more research is needed to better understand this estimate and how it might vary among individuals.

A key scientific difference between these two scenarios—immunity through vaccines vs. immunity from getting infected — are the parts of the virus that are helping to build that immunity. When designing a vaccine, researchers carefully expose individuals to a part or parts of the virus that have been shown to help us produce immunity-boosting antibodies, like the crown-shaped protein on the virus. Natural COVID-19 infection exposes people to the whole virus—not a carefully selected set of its traits.

Importantly, it’s not feasible to compare immunity from vaccination to immunity from infection overall. Different vaccines have different ingredients and mechanisms, and trigger different immune responses in different people. In some cases, a vaccine might not provide as strong of an antibody response as the virus itself. Other times, it may be the vaccines that trigger the stronger antibodies. Antibodies aren't the only measure for immunity against viruses, either.

In the case of some viruses, their vaccines consistently produce more antibodies in individuals than the virus itself. What we do know is that COVID-19 vaccines produce strong antibody responses, in some cases stronger than “natural” immunity, without an individual having to get sick.

Context and background

Antibodies are crucial for fighting certain types of infections, including COVID-19. Through a range of mechanisms, and in coordination with different parts of the immune system, some antibodies can completely inactivate a virus.

Information has circulated online that getting infected with COVID-19 produces a better antibody response than the vaccine. Whether or not an antibody response following a vaccine is stronger than an antibody response following infection depends on a range of factors, and can go both ways. The bottom line is that COVID-19 vaccines produce a strong antibody response, and as a result, getting sick with COVID-19 for immunity is extremely risky and unnecessary both for an individual and their community.

Resources

  1. Antibodies From Vaccines vs. Antibodies From Natural Infection (Very Well Health)
  2. Comparison of naturally acquired and vaccine-induced antibodies to Haemophilus influenzae type b capsular polysaccharide. (Infection and Immunity)
  3. Antibodies, immunity, and COVID-19 (JAMA Internal Medicine)
  4. What are the roles of antibodies versus a durable, high quality T-cell response in protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2? (Vaccine X)
  5. Persistence of serum and saliva antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 spike antigens in COVID-19 patients (Science Immunology)
  6. How long does immunity last after COVID-19 vaccination? (Gavi: The Vaccine Alliance)
  7. ‘Natural Immunity’ From Covid Is Not Safer Than a Vaccine (The New York Times)

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