The New Definition of "Natural Immunity", According To Vice

On September 21st Vice released an article titled “‘I Haven't Gotten COVID Yet’ Isn’t a Good Reason to Skip the Vax” and, as media outlets do, released a tweet to promote it. 

Here’s a screenshot of the tweet and the massive ratio it received

The argument in the replies and presumably the quote tweets is that Vice is using the term “natural immunity” incorrectly by implying that natural immunity only occurs when a person is born with an immunity to a disease. As I’m sure you are all familiar with, colloquially we use the term to refer to anyone who has contracted COVID and now has antibodies that protect them from future infection. 

Let’s get nerdy for a second --  from an immunology standpoint Vice is using the term “natural immunity” imprecisely. To be very precise, immunity to a disease acquired through exposure is considered natural immunity, as is vaccination. The descriptive breakdown from a scientific perspective is innate vs acquired immunity. Innate, or how Vice is using the term “natural immunity” refers to the things the human body does spontaneously to protect us, such as when your eye tears up if you get a speck of dust in it or your skin protecting your organs from outside irritants. Acquired immunity covers all immunological defenses you are not born with but can develop over your lifetime, and both what we refer to as natural immunity and vaccination fall under that umbrella. 

Okay, moving on from the science terminology lesson. 

My issue with the Vice article is that by using the term “natural immunity” in the way they did set up a giant strawman. Are there people who think they are naturally immune to COVID in the way Vice presents the concept? I’m sure somewhere out in the wild, some people genuinely believe that they are immune to COVID naturally, without having ever contracted it or taken a vaccine. The more common stories, however, tack with the ones Vice highlights in the article.

“Last month, Ashley Richards, a woman whose 46-year-old husband died after contracting the Delta variant of COVID, wrote an open letter to unvaccinated Americans urging them to get the vaccine. Neither Richards nor her husband had been vaccinated. ‘We thought we were invincible,’ she wrote. ‘Our thoughts were that we were young and healthy and that if the virus reached us we would be sick for a bit and we’d move on with our lives.’

“As Amler said, vaccine hesitancy is human and natural—but if folks are unable to put those feelings aside, even more people will get sick and die. This was the case for Michael Freedy, a 39-year-old father of five who died from COVID in July. Neither Freedy nor his fiancé, Jessica DuPreez, had gotten the vaccine because, as DuPreez later explained, the couple planned to wait a year so they could learn of any potential side effects and reactions.”

The closest we come to a story where a COVID patient believed that they had what Vice considered natural immunity is this one

“‘You’re taking a calculated risk that, ‘I’ve never been that sick before, so I probably won’t get sick again,’” said Fichtenbaum. He said those are the exact words he heard from a 47-year-old man he treated who arrived at the hospital with COVID and never went home.”

The main point of the article is to attempt to tease out why those who have yet to be vaccinated haven’t done so. There is quite a bit of armchair psychology going on, with the premise being that the unvaccinated remain so out of a deep-seated fear of acknowledging the seriousness of the COVID pandemic. Could that be true? Maybe. Is it a likely explanation? I doubt it. 

Another explanation posited is that the unvaccinated are afraid of the vaccine because it is new and, generally speaking, humans do not react well to new things being added into their environment. I can understand that explanation, although I don’t slot the COVID vaccine into the “new things” rubric at this point. December 14th will be the first anniversary of the first COVID vaccination shot administered in the US, since then there have been 387M doses administered with 182M people fully vaccinated. 

Unlike Vice, I don’t pretend to know why unvaccinated people continue to be so, although I have my suspicions. Yes, I’m sure there are still millions of people who think they will be fine or will come down with nothing more than a -- God I hate this term -- spicy cold if they contract COVID. And hey, maybe that will be their experience. But I have yet to hear anyone point blank say “I am not getting vaccinated because I think I have immunity from COVID from birth” in the way Vice is implying. Even the examples they provide in the article show that those who were unvaccinated didn’t think they were superhumans immune from a novel coronavirus but people who took a calculated risk and ended up on the losing side of it. That itself is a story and one that we are seeing play out increasingly with the Delta variant becoming the dominant variant in the US. 

There is really no need to embellish on the real story.