Story at a glance

  • Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University examined the antibody response of those who were fully vaccinated and caught a breakthrough COVID-19 case.
  • They found those who were fully vaccinated and got a breakthrough case had a significantly higher antibody response that could neutralize live virus.
  • OHSU researchers said their study’s results speak to an eventual end game to the pandemic.

Researchers have discovered that getting a breakthrough infection even after being fully vaccinated could be a good thing, as it can create “super immunity.”

A study was published from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) on Thursday, and it revealed that a breakthrough COVID-19 infection can generate a strong immune response against the delta variant. Authors of the study said that those promising results could potentially spread to other variants, suggesting a surge in immune response is likely to be highly effective against fighting off other COVID-19 variants. 

Fikadu Tafesse, assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine and a senior author of the study, said in a statement, “You can’t get a better immune response than this. 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.”

Researchers studied the blood samples of 52 people, all health care workers at OHSU who were vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. A total of 26 people contracted a breakthrough infection after they were fully vaccinated, while 10 of them caught the delta variant, nine were non-delta cases and seven were unknown variants.

Researchers studied each breakthrough case’s immune response and found they generated more antibodies at baseline and that those antibodies were substantially better at neutralizing the live virus, compared to those who were fully vaccinated but did not contract a breakthrough COVID-19 infection.


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Marcel Curlin, medical director of OHSU Occupational Health and a co-author of the study, said, “I think this speaks to an eventual end game. 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.”

An end game is desperately needed as the world scrambles to understand the new omicron variant and how it will interact with currently available vaccines while also juggling a surge in delta variant COVID-19 cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed new modeling data that indicates almost 97 percent of all U.S. COVID-19 cases are of the delta variant, while omicron makes up just under 3 percent of all cases.  

The CDC also warned health officials this week that the new omicron variant could create another surge of infections come January. 

Researchers at OHSU acknowledged that they had not examined the omicron variant in their study, but based on its results, Curlin said they “anticipate that breakthrough infections from the omicron variant will generate a similarly strong immune response among vaccinated people.”

The bottom line from OHSU researchers and the CDC has been to get vaccinated.

“You’ve got to have a foundation of protection,” said Curlin.

Even Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated in the face of the delta and omicron variants. During a White House COVID-19 press briefing, Fauci noted that those who had received a third booster shot experienced a 75 percent increase in effectiveness against fighting the omicron variant.


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Published on Dec 17, 2021