Interview with PhD Immunologist, Dr Tetyana Obukhanych- part 1, by Catherine Frompovich

Natural immunity is, in a way, a tautological expression because immunity can only be acquired naturally at this point, only through the exposure to an infected individual, although occasionally such exposure would go asymptomatic while still establishing immunity. Nevertheless, because there is a common misconception that vaccines also confer immunity, it is sometimes necessary to use a qualifier “natural,” when referring to immunity, to distinguish it from vaccine-based protection.

Ah! I appreciate your astuteness in qualifying the term “vaccine-based protection” as opposed to immunity.

Vaccinated children are coming down with the same infectious diseases for which they have been fully vaccinated. Why do you think vaccine ‘immunity’—if we can call it that—is so short lived and not adequate?

We would expect that vaccinated individuals would not be involved (or very minimally involved) in any outbreak of an infectious disease for which they have been vaccinated. Yet, when outbreaks are analyzed, it becomes apparent that most often this is not the case. Vaccinated individuals are indeed very frequently involved and constitute a high proportion of disease cases.

I think this is happening because vaccination does not engage the genuine mechanism of immunity. Vaccination typically engages the immune response—that is, everything that immunologists would theoretically “want” to see being engaged in the immune system. But apparently this is not enough to confer robust protection that matches natural immunity. Our knowledge of the immune system is far from being complete.

What kind of protection can we expect from vaccines, if not life-long immunity?

For live attenuated viral vaccines against communicable diseases, we can expect a very short-term protection (3-5 years). This estimate is indirect and comes from the statistical analysis of vaccination timing relative to the disease occurrence in vaccinated individuals. This is the only empirical evidence we have for the average duration of protection for certain vaccines.

There are other vaccines (e.g. for non-contagious toxin-mediated diseases, such as tetanus or viral diseases spread through animal bites, such as rabies) or even vaccines like Hepatitis B and Gardasil®, where an empirical estimate of the protection duration cannot be made at all, because we simply lack scientifically meaningful data to make such an estimate.

What’s the difference between the focus of the science of immunology and natural immunity?

Immunology does not study immunity. Immunology studies how the immune system responds to immunization—that is, to the injection of a “foreign” protein or particle (virus, bacteria). Immunologic research focuses mainly on the long-term changes that occur in immunologic organs and bodily fluids following immunization. Such changes are collectively referred to as “immunologic memory.”

But the question is: what makes immunologists think, as they surely do, that immunologic memory is the basis of immunity? I see no evidence in immunologic research to allow me to conclude that this is the case. If anything, I see immunologic memory as being the basis for sensitization rather than for immunity. I am starting to doubt that immunologic memory is beneficial to us.

I think you feel immunology studies its own invention—vaccination—rather than natural human immunity. Is that correct? What led you to that conclusion after having earned a doctorate in the science of immunology?

Immunology, as a science, started with the invention of the vaccine (the smallpox vaccine) before the immune system was even defined as such. Afterwards, basic immunologic research was and still is performed in the context of injecting something “foreign” into a research animal, rather than studying natural disease or natural state of immunity to disease.

Perhaps, it is easier to design an experiment around an injection rather than around a natural disease in a laboratory setting. Perhaps, it is only a matter of expediency of research. But whatever the reason might be for conducting the study of injection (vaccination) rather than the study of natural disease/immunity, it has led us to amass the knowledge of the artificial process.

Not surprisingly, the system that we now refer to as the “immune system” is the one that responds to the injection of a foreign antigen. The immune system, in essence, got defined by the process of vaccination, not by the process of natural immunity.

But if the purpose of the genuine “immune” system is to establish life-long immunity following disease experience, what is that system that does the trick? Is it the same system that responds to the injection of a foreign antigen or is it a totally different system?

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