News & Politics

New Study Shows COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects May Be More Common and Severe in Recovered Recipients

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

A new study of COVID-19 vaccine recipients globally should give the public health community a reason to reevaluate recommendations that everyone needs to be vaccinated regardless of prior infection with the virus. The researchers surveyed slightly more than 2,000 self-reporting vaccinated individuals who were at least seven days past their first vaccine dose and monitored their reports of side effects and their severity through the vaccination process. They compared the results for recovered patients with a confirmed COVID-19 PCR or antigen test with those who had not had COVID-19. From the study (emphasis mine):

People with prior COVID-19 exposure were largely excluded from the vaccine trials and, as a result, the safety and reactogenicity of the vaccines in this population have not been previously fully evaluated. For the first time, this study demonstrates a significant association between prior COVID19 infection and a significantly higher incidence and severity of self-reported side effects after vaccination for COVID-19. Consistently, compared to the first dose of the vaccine, we found an increased incidence and severity of self-reported side effects after the second dose, when recipients had been previously exposed to viral antigen. In view of the rapidly accumulating data demonstrating that COVID-19 survivors generally have adequate natural immunity for at least 6 months, it may be appropriate to re-evaluate the recommendation for immediate vaccination of this group.

While this is the first study of its kind and certainly warrants further examination, particularly because the side effects were self-reported, it acknowledges something that the public health bureaucracy, including CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci, rarely, if ever, mention. The science has consistently shown an adequate immune response in recovered patients, and we also know that the response includes more than just antibodies. In March, researchers found the immune response was durable at eight months with minor declines in several immune system components, including T cells, B cells, and neutralizing antibodies. According to The New York Times:

“That amount of memory would likely prevent the vast majority of people from getting hospitalized disease, severe disease, for many years,” said Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology who co-led the new study.

The findings are likely to come as a relief to experts worried that immunity to the virus might be short-lived, and that vaccines might have to be administered repeatedly to keep the pandemic under control.

And the research squares with another recent finding: that survivors of SARS, caused by another coronavirus, still carry certain important immune cells 17 years after recovering.

The study above is in addition to several studies on durable natural immunity noted in the research paper on side effects. Clearly, this type of research should be ongoing, but it is only valuable if our public health officials share it broadly, and to date, they have not. Even if it is emerging data, there have been no reports of large numbers of reinfections with any COVID-19 variant causing severe illness or death in recovered patients. This fact appears to reinforce the research findings to date.

The new study also compared side effects between the mRNA and viral vector vaccines:

Moreover, this is the first head-to-head real-world comparison of the self-reported safety of viral vector versus mRNA vaccines, with the latter associated with a 58% decreased incidence of self reported severe side effects, requiring hospital care. While more recipients of mRNA vaccines reported at least one (any) side effect, the difference was predominantly driven by the frequent local reactions, while the incidence of each of the systemic side effects evaluated, which are more burdensome to the recipients, was significantly reduced. Recipients of the viral vector-based vaccines were relatively older. However, differences in the incidence of adverse events were confirmed in multivariate analyses accounting for the age of the respondents as a covariate. Moreover, given that older people reported side effects less frequently, potential bias due to age difference would be expected to favour viral vector-based vaccines. These findings may have an impact on vaccine choice, and health policies.

Hooman Noorchashm, M.D., Ph.D., has warned of the possibility of a harmed minority in the public health bureaucracy’s rush to vaccination. He is not an anti-vaxxer by any means, views the development of the COVID-19 vaccines as a medical miracle, and has received the COVID-19 vaccination himself. Noorchashm raised the issue of receiving the vaccine after recovering because of how vaccine-induced immune responses work during an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight:

I want to reiterate as we have before, the most unprecedented thing that we’re doing in this vaccine campaign is that we’re deploying it indiscriminately into folks who have been recently or previously infected. And I think that we shouldn’t underestimate what the effect of a vaccine-driven immune response is on the tissues in individuals who have been previously infected, that literally, the antigenic footprint of the virus persists in the tissues of the previously infected.

So, it’s not a far stretch to imagine that those tissues, such as the inner lining of the blood vessel, will be targeted by the vaccine immune response.

To simplify, the sites where a recovered patient’s body fought off the virus—the lungs, the heart, the blood vessels, and even the brain, to name a few—remain physiologically “marked.” Vaccine-generated immune cells will attack these sites in the body as if they are still infected, potentially causing problems. Given the number of organs in the body that COVID-19 reportedly infects, Noorchashm’s explanation made me wonder if this phenomenon could cause the range of adverse reactions seen on VAERS data, from diarrhea to blinding headaches, high fevers, and shortness of breath. This study is the first to provide insight into a possible answer to those questions.

Anyone interested in finding out if they have a current immune reaction to COVID-19 can order a T-Detect test. It does not require a doctor’s order and can be completed at a local lab. The CDC estimates that only 1 in 4.3 infections with COVID-19 have been confirmed by testing. This test may be worthwhile for those who did not receive a positive test but are hesitant to get the vaccine to help them better assess their risk in conjunction with their doctors.

It would be great if our public health gurus would acknowledge recovered immunity. Then colleges and employers could accept proof of immunity in place of proof of vaccination, at least while researchers continue to study the question of the durability of naturally acquired immunity. Given this first glimpse regarding the increased severity of side effects, it would be irresponsible not to. And worth wondering why, if they do not.