The U.S. has now had its first reported Omicron variant-related death: a Covid-19 coronavirus reinfection in a man who was unvaccinated against Covid-19.
According to a Harris County Public Health (HCPH) report the man was between 50 and 60 years of age. He had underlying health conditions that put him at higher risk for severe Covid-19. It’s not clear why the man had not gotten vaccinated or whether he thought that his previous severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection somehow offered him enough protection. Regardless, whatever “natural immunity” he may have had from the first infection apparently wasn’t enough to fend off the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 the second time around.
Naturally, this case makes you wonder how much protection “natural immunity” will even offer against the Omicron variant. The Omicron variant is a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in the Star Trek movies, quite different from its predecessors. Kyle Griffin, Senior Producer for MSNBC‘s “The Last Word,” had a word or actually several words for those who have been touting natural immunity over vaccination against Covid-19:
This death in Harris County, Texas, certainly won’t be the U.S.’s last and only Omicron-related death. The Omicron variant has been spreading in the U.S. faster than a red flag meme. It’s not yet clear whether the Omicron variant is as likely or less likely to cause severe Covid-19 compared to other versions of the virus.
Nevertheless, the virus has already shown that it’s not soft and cuddly and that it can kill. As I covered for Forbes on December 18, the U.K. Health Security Agency had reported seven Omicron-related deaths as of December 16. That number doubled to 14 as of two days later December 18, according to a December 20 report from the U.K. Health Security Agency.
Now the word “natural” in “natural immunity” may make it sound like a favorable thing. But “natural” isn’t always better. For example, would you rather have “natural” poop in your ear or fake poop? In the case of Covid-19, people have been using “natural immunity” to describe the immune protection that you supposedly get after recovering from a SARS-CoV-2 infection, assuming that you survive the infection.
However, such natural immunity may be about as reliable as an alpaca as a night club bouncer. It’s not clear what percentage of those recovering from Covid-19 actually end up having adequate immune protection and how long this protection may last. For example, as I covered for Forbes previously, a study found that 36% of those who recovered from a SARS-CoV-2 didn’t even develop antibodies. If you were told that there’s a 36% chance that you are actually wearing pants in public right now, you’d probably be a bit worried. Moreover, in August, I covered for Forbes how a study found that unvaccinated folks were over twice as likely as unvaccinated folks to get a SARS-CoV-2 reinfection.
These findings haven’t stopped some on social media from claiming that the Omicron variant is somehow proving “natural immunity” to be more effective than Covid-19 vaccination. For example, there was the following tweet from an anonymous Twitter account:
In general, getting medical advice from an anonymous social media account is like getting medical advice from bathroom graffiti. Take any “statistic” offered by an anonymous social media account with a Justin Bieber lunchbox-full of salt, especially when the account doesn’t clearly link the source of the statistic.
Regardless, say you were to accept this statistic offered by this anonymous account: that a majority of Omicron cases have been in vaccinated people. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that vaccinated people are more likely to get infected by the Omicron variant than unvaccinated people. That would be like saying, people who wear clothes in public are more likely to get infected than people who go au naturel. With over 73% of the U.S. population having received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccines, the virus is simply more likely to find someone who’s been vaccinated versus someone who hasn’t. That’s how odds work.
Some touting “natural immunity” have pointed to the observation that vaccine-induced immunity may not protect as well against the Omicron variant as it has against previous versions of the virus. For example, as Robert Hart described for Forbes on December 14, a preliminary study found that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to offer 70% protection against hospitalization but only 33% protection against Covid-19 coronavirus infection. This reduced protection is likely due to the fact that the Omicron variant is to previous SARS-CoV-2 as Benedict Cumberbatch was to Ricardo Montalbán in the Star Trek movies: not quite as recognizable. Compared to the original version of the SARS-CoV-2, the Omicron variant has over 50 mutations with over 30 affecting the spike protein.
Hmm, are you familiar with the saying, “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?” Well, pointing out the limitations of the Covid-19 vaccine while trying to tout “natural immunity” would be akin to throwing a ball aggressively against a wall at very close range and then having the ball ricochet right back into your face. If the Omicron variant can evade vaccine-induced immunity to some degree, what do you think it might do with “natural immunity,” which may be more variable and weaker to start? File this under “didn’t quite think this through.”
The spread of the Omicron variant just offers more reason to get a booster shot if you’ve already been fully vaccinated and get fully vaccinated if you are not already so. As Lisa Kim has covered for Forbes, studies have suggested that a Covid-19 mRNA booster shot could push your protection against symptomatic Covid-19 back up to the 70% plus range. Similarly, getting vaccinated after you’ve recovered from the Covid-19 will likely offer you much better protection against the Omicron variant than relying solely on whatever “natural immunity” you may have. After all, if you want protection, isn’t it better to wear some more clothes than to go au naturel?