Pandemic ‘end game’: Oregon researchers find breakthrough COVID cases bring ‘super immunity’

PORTLAND, Oregon – People who are already vaccinated, then get infected with breakthrough cases of COVID-19 are left with what researchers in Oregon are calling “super immunity” from the virus.

The research from Oregon Health and Science University is now published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The initial research found that breakthrough infections generate a “robust immune response against the Delta variant”, but the authors suggest the same response is likely for other COVID-19 variants, including omicron.

“The antibodies are better at neutralizing new variants, even variants that you were not infected with,” said co-author Marcel Curlin, M.D., associate professor of medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine.

“You can’t get a better immune response than this,” said senior author Dr. Fikadu Tafesse, an assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine. “These vaccines are very effective against severe disease. Our study suggests that individuals who are vaccinated and then exposed to a breakthrough infection have super immunity.”

A news release on the research says antibodies measured in blood samples of breakthrough cases were as much as 1,000% more effective than antibodies generated two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

The University of Washington says though Pfizer was the only vaccine tested, the expectation in terms of results is similar for other COVID vaccines.

“Will this broad immunity now build the level of protection against the next potential wave? And if it does, we may start to see the end of this pandemic,” said Dr. Deborah Fuller, a microbiology professor at UW. “So the end game from this pandemic is not necessarily elimination of this virus. The end game is endemic.”

It is important to note that you don’t want to get COVID just to get super immunity.

“What you’re doing then is actually walking around healthy and you’re just shedding your virus all over other people who are at higher risk than you are,” Fuller said.

“I think this speaks to an eventual end game,” Curlin said. “It doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the pandemic, but it points to where we’re likely to land: Once you’re vaccinated and then exposed to the virus, you’re probably going to be reasonably well-protected from future variants.”

OHSU’s research not only paves the way for ending the pandemic, but scientists developing more COVID vaccines.

“If we understand what’s going on there, then we may be able to incorporate some of those mechanisms into the next vaccine so that we’re able to actually induce those responses directly through vaccination without having to have the breakthrough infections,” Fuller explained.

UW is working on a vaccine. Fuller says they are working on one that is room temperature and that you can give yourself. They are also trying to develop one that has fewer shots and a lower dose.

Researchers have not studied omicron specifically, but Tafesse said “based on the results of this study, we would anticipate that breakthrough infections from the omicron variant will generate a similarly strong immune response among vaccinated people.”

“When we have a more immune worldwide population, then COVID will have a harder time get a foot-hole,” Curlin said. “It’ll have a harder time creating these surges that sweep through and disrupt our society.”

The study was done with OHSU employees who had been vaccinated with Pfizer.

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