Fact Check: Do You Need a COVID-19 Vaccine If You Already Have Had the Virus?

COVID-19 cases continue to hit daily records in the U.S., and vaccines are on the horizon.

Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are the leaders in creating FDA-approved vaccines, with Pfizer's showing a 95 percent efficacy rate and Moderna's at 94.1 percent. No vaccine has been approved in the U.S. as of December 1, but both developers applied for emergency use authorizations through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late November. Both companies said their vaccines will require an initial dose and a booster a few weeks later.

The Question

Now that vaccines appear imminent, people are asking if being vaccinated is needed if they already have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Since the initial coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. earlier this year, approximately 13.6 million cases have been reported across the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But are coronavirus antibodies strong enough to give an individual previously diagnosed with COVID-19 immunity from the virus?

The CDC's website suggests that early evidence proposes the idea that the antibodies of the coronavirus "may not last very long." However, they cannot comment on the issue until a vaccine is provided and they are given recommendations by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).

COVID vaccine doses
STATISTA

The Facts

On December 2, Operation Warp Speed (OWS), which is a government public-private partnership put together to facilitate development, manufacturing and distribution of 300 million safe doses of COVID-19 vaccine by January, held a briefing regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, scientific head of OWS, referred to the current vaccine trials and how they have affected those participating.

"Here are the facts. In the trials, people were recruited on the basis of not having had COVID, clinical COVID disease, so symptoms, etc.," Slaoui said. "On that basis they were recruited, it turns out anywhere between 5 and 10 percent of the subjects recruited were zero positive to COVID-19. In other words, they most likely had asymptomatic or very mildly symptomatic disease and didn't notice it.

"So what we know is that the vaccines are safe in these populations, and quite significant numbers of zero positives have been immunized and their immune responses are being analyzed."

#OperationWarpSpeed is working to accelerate the timeline for producing a #COVID19 vaccine while adhering to essential standards for safety and efficacy. Stay up to date on the latest news: https://t.co/XOIyj4IL6g #OWS pic.twitter.com/k6GMGab1Sv

— HHS.gov (@HHSGov) December 3, 2020

Dr. Mark Siedner, an infectious disease clinician and clinical epidemiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, agreed that there is not enough evidence to know if the vaccination benefits those with prior infection.

"On one hand, we know that some people, and particularly those with poor immune systems, appear to remain at risk for re-infection," Siedner told Newsweek. "But on the other hand, re-infection appears to be an incredibly rare phenomenon. There are only a handful of cases in the literature."

The first batch of coronavirus vaccines, once approved, are expected to be enough for 20 million people, less than the amount of frontline and high-risk individuals in the country.

"The decision whether or not to vaccinate those previously infected has completely different implications for the top two groups on the vaccination priority list: older individuals in long-term care facilities and healthcare workers," Siedner said. "For the former, vaccination primarily serves the purpose of preventing severe disease. But for the latter, vaccination is most important for prevention of transmission to others."

That is a major reason why the uncertainty of the effect the COVID-19 vaccines might have on those who have previously contracted the virus is a crucial question that needs to be answered, Siedner said.

"We need to remember that many of those infected previously are those who have been in the trenches, at the front line of the epidemic as healthcare workers, grocery workers, first responders, other essential workers, and under-represented minorities in geographic locations without sufficient healthcare access," he said.

"Deciding to exclude these individuals from a beneficial public health response program should not be taken lightly or it might only exacerbate many of the healthcare inequities that the COVID-19 epidemic has only illuminated."

The Answer

Unknown.

The lifespan of the coronavirus antibodies has not yet been identified, but how long a vaccine is effective also is unknown, experts said. The vaccine might protect people for weeks, months or years, but no one knows how long it will fight the virus, said Dr. James Yoon, an infectious disease specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Once a vaccine is approved and distributed, experts recommend that everyone is vaccinated, beginning with high-risk individuals and front-line workers.