Background: Understanding protection conferred by natural SARS-CoV-2 infection versus COVID-19 vaccination is important for informing vaccine mandate decisions. We compared protection conferred by natural infection versus that from the BNT162b2 (Pfizer-BioNTech) and mRNA-1273 (Moderna) vaccines in Qatar.
Methods: We conducted two matched retrospective cohort studies that emulated target trials. Data were obtained from the national federated databases for COVID-19 vaccination, SARS-CoV-2 testing, and COVID-19-related hospitalisation and death between Feb 28, 2020 (pandemic onset in Qatar) and May 12, 2022. We matched individuals with a documented primary infection and no vaccination record (natural infection cohort) with individuals who had received two doses (primary series) of the same vaccine (BNT162b2-vaccinated or mRNA-1273-vaccinated cohorts) at the start of follow-up (90 days after the primary infection). Individuals were exact matched (1:1) by sex, 10-year age group, nationality, comorbidity count, and timing of primary infection or first-dose vaccination. Incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19-related hospitalisation and death in the natural infection cohorts was compared with incidence in the vaccinated cohorts, using Cox proportional hazards regression models with adjustment for matching factors.
Findings: Between Jan 5, 2021 (date of second-dose vaccine roll-out) and May 12, 2022, 104 500 individuals vaccinated with BNT162b2 and 61 955 individuals vaccinated with mRNA-1273 were matched to unvaccinated individuals with a documented primary infection. During follow-up, 7123 SARS-CoV-2 infections were recorded in the BNT162b2-vaccinated cohort and 3583 reinfections were recorded in the matched natural infection cohort. 4282 SARS-CoV-2 infections were recorded in the mRNA-1273-vaccinated cohort and 2301 reinfections were recorded in the matched natural infection cohort. The overall adjusted hazard ratio (HR) for SARS-CoV-2 infection was 0·47 (95% CI 0·45-0·48) after previous natural infection versus BNT162b2 vaccination, and 0·51 (0·49-0·54) after previous natural infection versus mRNA-1273 vaccination. The overall adjusted HR for severe (acute care hospitalisations), critical (intensive care unit hospitalisations), or fatal COVID-19 cases was 0·24 (0·08-0·72) after previous natural infection versus BNT162b2 vaccination, and 0·24 (0·05-1·19) after previous natural infection versus mRNA-1273 vaccination. Severe, critical, or fatal COVID-19 was rare in both the natural infection and vaccinated cohorts.
Interpretation: Previous natural infection was associated with lower incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection, regardless of the variant, than mRNA primary-series vaccination. Vaccination remains the safest and most optimal tool for protecting against infection and COVID-19-related hospitalisation and death, irrespective of previous infection status.
Funding: The Biomedical Research Program and the Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Biomathematics Research Core, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar; Qatar Ministry of Public Health; Hamad Medical Corporation; Sidra Medicine; Qatar Genome Programme; and Qatar University Biomedical Research Center.
Copyright © 2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an Open Access article under the CC BY 4.0 license. Published by Elsevier Ltd.. All rights reserved.