In their quest to excuse COVID vaccine refusal, Republican politicians and conservative media figures have settled on a favorite line of defense: Natural immunity, they say, is better anyway.
One version of the argument implies that there’s no point in getting vaccinated, since natural immunity is more effective. (Never mind that, unlike a vaccine, acquiring natural immunity first requires you to get a potentially deadly infection.) Another variation suggests that people who are unvaccinated and have already experienced COVID shouldn’t feel pressured to get a shot, because their natural immunity is sufficient to protect them. This point sounds more level-headed, but it’s also misleading.
We’ll get to why in a moment. But first, it’s important to recognize the extent to which the gospel of natural immunity has come to dominate right-wing media. On Fox News, viewers routinely hear that natural immunity is superior to getting a Pfizer or Moderna shot.* Mark Levin says it’s “stronger than the vaccine”; Sean Hannity says it’s “27 times more effective”; Tucker Carlson says those with “natural immunity are safer than most people.” Ben Carson, the former surgeon, presidential candidate, and Trump administration housing secretary, often appears on Fox—introduced as a “real expert” about COVID—to claim, erroneously, that in contrast to “people who are getting immunity by vaccines,” “people with natural immunity seem to have a much better resistance to the disease and to its variants.”
Republican senators are peddling the same line. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah says studies show “natural immunity is more effective than vaccines.” Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas says members of the armed forces shouldn’t have to get vaccinated because “many already have natural immunity which can be better than the vaccine.” On Monday, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted, preposterously, that tennis star Novak Djokovic—who has been infected but not vaccinated—“likely has more natural immunity now than two dozen boosters.”
Some demagogues on the right glorify people who get their immunity from COVID, rather than from “socialist” vaccine mandates, as brave and self-reliant. These infected people are better protected than other Americans, according to Carlson, because “they’ve relied on their own immune systems, and they’ve been rewarded for it.” At the same time, many Republicans juxtapose natural immunity with corrupt corporate power. Two weeks ago on Fox News, Rep. Andy Biggs, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, accused Big Pharma of manipulating federal COVID policy. When Biggs was asked whether Congress ignores natural immunity because there are “no natural-immunity lobbyists on Capitol Hill,” he replied: “Yeah. That’s exactly what it is.”
To social conservatives, natural immunity is attractive for a third reason: It taps into a kind of creationism, the idea that we should rely on what God has given us, not on technology. “Why do we assume that the body’s natural immune system isn’t the marvel that it really is?” asked Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin in a rant against vaccine advocacy last week. “Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease?” When Johnson’s remarks drew fire, he retorted: “I won’t apologize for being in awe of creation or for the assumption that immunity from COVID infection might outperform immunity created in a lab.” He belittled COVID vaccines, saying they “aren’t as safe or effective as we hoped.”
Some of these arguments, such as the idea that vaccines are a Big Pharma conspiracy, are just nuts. Pharmaceutical companies make a lot less money if you get a COVID shot—which costs the government about $40—than if you refuse vaccination, get COVID, and need antibody therapy (promoted by the same Republican politicians), for which the government shells out hundreds or thousands of dollars per patient.
But the less crazy argument—that natural immunity, once you have it, offers protection that’s superior to or as reliable as vaccine-induced immunity—is also deceptive. Studies do show that when people survive COVID, many of them develop robust immunity against reinfection or serious disease. Sometimes that immunity is stronger than vaccine-induced immunity, depending on the person and the degree of vaccination. But immunity derived from COVID infection is unpredictable, for a sensible and worrisome reason: It’s proportional, on average, to the severity of your infection, and you don’t know how sick you’ll get. The more easily you escape serious illness, the weaker your resulting immunity is likely to be. And the immunity you get from the virus, like vaccine-induced immunity, wanes over time.
It’s simpler and wiser to build up your immunity against COVID with predictable, regulated doses that don’t include the whole virus, have been tested for safety and efficacy, and can be repeated as necessary. In other words, vaccination. The precise repeatability of vaccines gives them a long-term advantage: Even when natural immunity starts out as more effective, vaccination eventually overtakes it. Last week, a study in Scotland confirmed that this principle applies to COVID. It found that “immunity from natural infection (without vaccination) is more protective than two doses of vaccine but inferior to three doses.”
Ultimately, it’s a mistake to think of vaccination as an alternative to trusting the human body. Vaccination doesn’t outperform your immune system. It strengthens your immune system. “Vaccines take advantage of this natural process to train your immune system,” says the British Society for Immunology. As a result, when the real virus shows up, your body “responds faster and more efficiently to prevent infection and stop you from getting seriously sick.” This synthesis of nature and technology can help anyone. As the immunology society explains: “Even if you’ve had COVID-19, vaccination will boost whatever immunity you have from natural infection.”
Paul knows this. On Tuesday, at a Senate hearing, he noted that “the idea of natural immunity is the idea upon which vaccines are based.” His point, in highlighting this relationship, was that people who believe in vaccination should also believe in natural immunity. But the reverse is also true. If you think that the human immune system is the key to beating COVID—or if, like Johnson, you believe that this wondrous power was given to us by a creator—then honor that gift by doing your part. Get vaccinated.
Correction, Jan. 18, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Moderna.