SARS-CoV-2—The Role of Natural Immunity: A Narrative Review

Background: Both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity to COVID-19 may be useful to reduce the mortality/morbidity of this disease, but still a lot of controversy exists. Aims: This narrative review analyzes the literature regarding these two immunitary processes and more specifically: (a) the duration of natural immunity; (b) cellular immunity; (c) cross-reactivity; (d) the duration of post-vaccination immune protection; (e) the probability of reinfection and its clinical manifestations in the recovered patients; (f) the comparisons between vaccinated and unvaccinated as to the possible reinfections; (g) the role of hybrid immunity; (h) the effectiveness of natural and vaccine-induced immunity against Omicron variant; (i) the comparative incidence of adverse effects after vaccination in recovered individuals vs. COVID-19-naïve subjects. Material and Methods: through multiple search engines we investigated COVID-19 literature related to the aims of the review, published since April 2020 through July 2022, including also the previous articles pertinent to the investigated topics. Results: nearly 900 studies were collected, and 246 pertinent articles were included. It was highlighted that the vast majority of the individuals after suffering from COVID-19 develop a natural immunity both of cell-mediated and humoral type, which is effective over time and provides protection against both reinfection and serious illness. Vaccine-induced immunity was shown to decay faster than natural immunity. In general, the severity of the symptoms of reinfection is significantly lower than in the primary infection, with a lower degree of hospitalizations (0.06%) and an extremely low mortality. Conclusions: this extensive narrative review regarding a vast number of articles highlighted the valuable protection induced by the natural immunity after COVID-19, which seems comparable or superior to the one induced by anti-SARS-CoV-2 vaccination.

Consequently, vaccination of the unvaccinated COVID-19-recovered subjects may not be indicated.

Further research is needed in order to: (a) measure the durability of immunity over time; (b) evaluate both the impacts of Omicron BA.5 on vaccinated and healed subjects and the role of hybrid immunity