Breakthrough infections may create ‘super immunity’ to COVID-19, study suggests

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A study from Oregon Health and Science University suggests that antibodies generated from vaccination and a breakthrough case are more effective against the virus that causes COVID-19. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(NEXSTAR) – Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University say they’ve found evidence to suggest that breakthrough infections create “super immunity” to the virus that causes COVID-19.

“You can’t get a better immune response than this,” senior author Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the OHSU School of Medicine, said in a news release. “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.”

Specifically, Tafesse and his team of researchers found that antibodies in the blood of a vaccinated person who experienced a breakthrough case could be 1,000% more effective than those found in some fully vaccinated individuals who did not get infected.

They further believe the antibodies generated from breakthrough cases are “likely” to be more effective against SARS-CoV-2 variants, though the researchers did not specifically examine their effectiveness against the omicron variant.

The study, however, examined blood samples from only 26 people with breakthrough cases — all of whom were OHSU employees, and all of whom had been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. Still, when compared to a sample of 26 vaccinated employees who had not experienced breakthrough cases, the antibodies from the infected group were found to be in larger numbers, and “more effective at neutralizing the live virus.”

Study co-author Marcel Curlin, M.D., said the results may indicate an “eventual end game” for the pandemic.

“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,” Curlin said.

Health officials, meanwhile, continue to encourage vaccination and booster shots as the best protection against COVID-19, especially in the face of the omicron variant’s expected dominance.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Thursday that booster shots are especially important to “reconstitute” protections among the fully vaccinated, even if they may not prevent omicron infection.

“It may not protect much against infection, but it will go a long way to protect against severe disease,” he said Thursday at an event for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Fauci also said omicron will likely become the dominant variant within “a few weeks,” but stressed that unvaccinated individuals are still very vulnerable to the delta variant, which is currently resurging in the U.S.

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