Science Matters—and So Do Individual Rights

On vaccines, natural immunity, and mandates

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As battles over Covid-19 mandates roil the country, it is vital that policies be scientifically based. Well-established legal precedent gives state governments and private entities the authority to impose vaccine mandates in appropriate circumstances, but mandates must be rationally related to a legitimate health aim—protecting against the spread of an infectious disease. A recent legal battle at George Mason University, a public university in northern Virginia, illustrates what happens when they aren’t.

GMU’s reopening policy requires all students, faculty, and staff to verify their vaccination status unless they obtain a religious or medical exemption—or risk disciplinary measures including unpaid leave, loss of merit pay, and termination of employment. Todd Zywicki, a longtime professor at GMU’s Antonin Scalia Law School, objected. He had already contracted and fully recovered from Covid-19 and, as a result, acquired natural immunity, confirmed by multiple positive SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests. His physician advised him that vaccination was unnecessary.

GMU insisted. Zywicki sued, claiming that the university could not show a compelling interest that should override his autonomy and constitutional rights to refuse a vaccine made unnecessary by his naturally acquired immunity.

GMU blinked. It granted Zywicki a medical exemption allowing him to hold office hours and attend in-person events provided that he maintains six feet of distance and that he undergo free, weekly Covid tests.

The GMU policy exemplifies the type of rigid, irrational rule-making that has characterized much of the pandemic response. If an individual can demonstrate immunity via circulating antibodies after a previous Covid infection, there is no compelling reason to require him to undergo an invasive vaccination.

The CDC acknowledges that reinfection of recovered Covid-19 patients is rare. Nevertheless, it still recommends that recovered patients be vaccinated. The agency cites two reasons: first, that experts don’t know how long natural immunity protection lasts; and second, that vaccination provides a strong boost to natural immunity. The first— uncertainty about the duration of protective natural immunity—is not, by itself, a convincing reason for vaccinating previously infected individuals. The second, while true, does not provide a rationale for a vaccine mandate.

No one yet knows how long natural Covid immunity will last—but the same holds true for vaccine immunity. Indeed, the duration of follow-up of people after infection is far longer than the follow-up after vaccination; it shows that natural immunity after infection is durable and long-term, lasting at least a year. Comparison with other coronaviruses indicates that natural antibody-mediated protection in Covid-19 will likely last one to two years, and that other mechanisms of immunity (such as relying on T and B cells) persist far longer.

Read the full article at City Journal.