Fact Check: Does Natural Immunity Offer “Little” Protection Against Omicron?

by Jeremy R. Hammond Dec 18, 2021

The New York Times curiously tells us that 75% effectiveness from natural immunity against the Omicron variant is “little” protection while 33% effectiveness from vaccination “raises hope”.

An article in the New York Times on December 6 offered tentative good news about the new SARS-CoV-2 variant making headlines, the “Omicron” variant first detected in South Africa. Headlined “Omicron Is Fast Moving, but Perhaps Less Severe, Early Reports Suggest”, the article noted that hospitals in South Africa were reporting that people testing positive are presenting with mild symptoms: “In fact, they said, most of their infected patients were admitted for other reasons and have no Covid symptoms.”[1]

In other words, most of these patients had evidence of infection with SARS-CoV-2 but did not have COVID-19, which is the name of the clinical disease caused by the coronavirus. (Clinical disease is defined as the manifestation of symptoms.[2])

As the South African Medical Research Council reported on December 4, most people in hospitals who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were there for other reasons, with the positive test being “an incidental finding”. Death rates were lower than what would be expected based on data from previous epidemic waves characterized by the spread of earlier variants.[3]

While severe disease and deaths can lag diagnoses by several weeks, the Times noted that the observations to date were good news. However, the Times dampened the mood with the alarming claim that “early evidence” shows “that prior coronavirus infection offers little immunity to Omicron.”[4]

The link provided by the Times in that statement directs readers to another Times article published on December 2 titled “Prior Infection Is Little Defense Against Virus Variant, Scientists Say”.

The article summary states, “Evidence from South Africa, where the Omicron variant already dominates, shows a high rate of reinfection of people who have already had the coronavirus.”

The lead paragraph reads, “A past coronavirus infection appears to give little immunity to the new Omicron variant rippling across the globe, South African scientists warned on Thursday, potentially tearing away one layer of defense that humanity has won slowly and at immense cost.”

The study being referenced is discussed a bit further into the article:

Scientists in South Africa have reported a sudden, sharp rise in November in coronavirus cases among people in that country who had already been infected, in a study that has not yet been reviewed and published by a scientific journal. The authors noted that there was no such upswing when the Beta and Delta variants emerged.

They did not say how many of those reinfections could be attributed to Omicron, but South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported on Wednesday that when it conducted a genetic analysis on a sampling of coronavirus-positive test results from November, almost three-quarters were the new variant.

“Population-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection,” the authors of the unpublished study wrote.

The Times follows that summary with the even more alarming message that natural immunity from infection with prior variants offers no protection against Omicron. The Times quotes a microbiologist from South Africa who said during an online briefing held by the World Health Organization (WHO), “We believe that previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron.”[5]

The Times is not alone in claiming that the study by researchers in South Africa showed that natural immunity offers little to no protection against the Omicron variant. For another example, citing the same study, the Australian government’s health department published a statement from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) on December 12 claiming that the study found “that past infection with an earlier variant does not provide significant protection against infection”.[6]

However, the New York Times and the Australian government are lying.

The truth is that the data that they are relying upon to support the claim that natural immunity offers little to no protection against infection with the Omicron variant shows that, while this variant does appear to significantly escape immunity from prior infection, people with pre-existing natural immunity still have considerable protection and are far less likely to become infected with it.

In fact, the estimated protectiveness against Omicron afforded to people with natural immunity unsurprisingly remains greater than the estimated protectiveness afforded to people who are fully vaccinated.

An artist's rendering of a coronavirus (image by geralt, licensed under Pixabay License)

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