Covid Vaccines Confer Better Immunity Than Getting The Disease

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We know that Covid vaccines reduce the risk of future infection by over 200%, and also reduce the severity of infection, compared to getting the disease. The official current thinking by the CDC is that vaccines are better than natural infection for Covid-19, based on that research and other considerations. (Added: See also this [thanks Yana!])

Surely, getting Covid would, for most people, cause a certain degree of immunity. That is what the immune system is for, after all. A vaccine imitates that process. It is entirely conceivable that getting a disease would be better than vaccinating in some cases. Remember the 2009 influenza epidemic? One study showed that getting that strain of influenza conferred better immunity than the vaccine available at the time.

The logic behind infection being better than a vaccine is usually this: The body responds, possibly, to multiple, and different, molecular configurations on the infectious agent, and learns to recognize them. A vaccine is almost always targeted to a smaller set of molecular configurations, so naturally a vaccine would not prime the immune system in as many different ways as the infection would.

That is a nice logical argument, but the empirical data clearly indicates it is wrong. The available vaccinations work better than infection in creating immunity. So why is this true?

I don’t think we fully understand this yet, but I’ll offer two lines of thinking. First, the somewhat more obscure but possibly very important. Remember, despite the fact that reporters and even doctors (and Facebook and Twitter self styled experts) only know about one part of the multi-part immune system, the b cell mediated anti-body response to an infection. There are other pars as well, including the t cell response, which amounts to t cell mediated death of infected cells, and the memory system for both t and b cell systems. Both of these systems work in concert with other aspects of the immune system, that involve for example cells that find a pathogen and bring it to specific sites in the body where it is interrogated, and responded to.

There is research to suggest that for some diseases (not Covid specifically but other respiratory viruses) an infection may elicit a very rapid response by the t cell system, which does the infection in fast enough that the b cell system does not fully develop an “evolved” memory response to use later in the event of a second infection. However, over time, with repeated infections, all of the various parts of the adaptive immune system figure it out and fully respond, and now the individual has excellent immunity.

Personally I suspect that this explains the curious phenomenon that no children or young adults are zero percent likely to get a cold, but lots of people in their 70s or older claim that they never had a cold in their lives. They did, they forgot, and in the mean time, their immune system developed a strong response to common colds. This is an untested hypothesis, so don’t go around thinking it just yet.

The larger point is this. If that research is meaningful, it may be the case that the immune system is capable of tripping over itself, so a natural infection produces a less than idea result. Meanwhile, a vaccine is designed to not do that. Remember, if we have a few vaccines for a given infection, those vaccines represent a small subset of many potential vaccines that were tried out and either gave indications of ineffectiveness or bad side effects. Perhaps those earlier variants of the vaccine are analogous to less than effective immune responses to natural infection.

Which is a nice segue into the second idea. Imagine a target in a shooting range, one of those outlines of the body with a few areas designated (by bull’s eye symbols) as places to shoot. Imagine firing a gun semi-randomly at the target and maybe hitting it in a few places. If you do that a bunch of times, you may now and then accidentally hit the head, and have a clean kill. All the other shots are either totally ineffective, or only “wound” the target. That is natural immunity to a natural infection.

Alternatively, you shoot the target in the head once and it is dead. One bullet, one shot, but a perfect shot aimed at exactly where you have to shoot to have the best result. That is a carefully designed vaccine. It doesn’t matter how many other body parts (surface configurations of molecules on a virus) the natural immunity responds to, if there is one main configuration (in this case, part of the spike protein) that the vaccine focuses on. And no, the virus doesn’t easily mutate in such a way that the spike protein is different enough that it can’t be targeted. This is a part of the virus that is highly conserved. It cant change much, or the individual virus with the change can’t reproduce. A target can’t exist without a head. It will always have a head, and if you can always hit the head, then you always win, and all the other strategies are lesser.

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35 thoughts on “Covid Vaccines Confer Better Immunity Than Getting The Disease

  1. The official current thinking by the CDC is that vaccines are better than natural infection for Covid-19, based on that research and other considerations.

    This is the message that comes from the book by Jeremy Farrar. The explanation should mean it is game over for the ‘herd immunity’ nonsense, not least because of the new variant that have evolved. Of course Creationists will not grasp that this is evolution in action, as ever with pathogens and their hosts.

    Spike: The Virus vs. The People – the Inside Story

  2. https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2101

    More recently, the CDC made headlines with an observational study aiming to characterise the protection a vaccine might give to people with past infections. Comparing 246 Kentuckians who had subsequent reinfections with 492 controls who had not, the CDC concluded that those who were unvaccinated had more than twice the odds of reinfection.30 The study notes the limitation that the vaccinated are “possibly less likely to get tested. Therefore, the association of reinfection and lack of vaccination might be overestimated.” In announcing the study, Walensky stated: “If you have had covid-19 before, please still get vaccinated.”31

    So the Kentucky study has a potential source of bias and is pretty small, compared to some of the other studies which show the opposite.

    I think we know natural immunity + vaccination immunity is best (not that I advocate getting sick on purpose). I don’t think we have the definitive answer yet as to which is better natural immunity alone or vaccination immunity alone.

    Personally I am leaning towards natural immunity being better, despite the CDC Kentucky study. But I will be looking at future studies carefully because I am very interested in this subject.

    1. Personally I am leaning towards natural immunity being better…

      Which is to ignore the effect from widespread infections over an extended period of time allowing more dangerous mutations to evolve. This is a particular problem with those who have some underlying other infection such as HIV where recovery can be prolonged thus providing the virus much more time to evolve.

    2. ‘Personally I am leaning towards natural immunity being better’ opines the resident right wing know-nothing.

      I am not sure how the 5 million victims of covid feel about that. Or the tens of millions with long covid who have suffered one or more seriously debilitating symptoms for many months after being infected. I know some of them. They tell me that they would have preferred the vaccine any day over what they have endured to achieve immunity.

      RickA is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong…. you get the picture.

  3. “I don’t think we have the definitive answer yet a”

    Of course you don’t, since you never believe any science that shows your opinions are wrong.

    “But I will be looking at future studies carefully because I am very interested in this subject.”

    Yes, because you are really able to understand them. Good lord.

  4. Here is another article discussing that natural immunity is better:

    https://www.qeios.com/read/DP264J

    This debate is not a suggestion to rush out and get sick in order to get natural immunity. However, it is relevant to public policy related to vaccination mandates.

    My position is that people who have acquired natural immunity should not be mandated to get the vaccine if they don’t want to – and should be allowed to use negative tests to maintain their employment. I am sure that over time that will be the trend.

  5. ricka “I’ll continue to read research” then links to two items that might be considered research but wouldn’t cut the mustard anywhere. The

    From the first link (which is a letter to the editor, not a discussion of a study)

    “We conducted telephonic interview….”

    Nope, not a study.

    From the start of the second article (word for word with my emphasis on the last part of the sentence).

    “It should not be necessary to write an article to demonstrate the superiority of natural immunity over vaccine immunity, but it is necessary in view of the many underhanded attacks that tend to make artificial immunity seem more effective.

    Yup — that’s a sign of real research. Way to show (once again) rickA that you have no clue what you’re talking about and are simply willing to round up any crap that you think supports you.

  6. RickA is a numbskull. Natural immunity is NOT better if it entails a massive risk to long-term health. Only a complete imbecile would choose natural infection of a potentially dangerous, novel virus over vaccination. Next thing we will hear from RickA is that natural smallpox or ebola infection is better to achieve immunity than vaccination.

    What a piece of work.

  7. I hope that natural immunity is better than the generally good vaccines but either way it should not affect your decision to get vaccinated. So I don’t see the point in arguing about it.

    I hate needles with a passion. They don’t hurt much at all but they creep me the **** out. I got this vaccination and will be getting the booster. Remember, the life you save might not be your own. It isn’t all about you cupcake.

    1. Remember, the life you save might not be your own. It isn’t all about you cupcake.

      Absolutely, a point RickA persistently ignores.

      As for hating needles, a few decades in naval service and one soon gets used to them, enough to give a couple of dozen pints of blood, now that was a big needle, as is a cannula but one gets used to these also. Had to stop giving blood for health reasons.

  8. I agree that the debate over which type of immunity is better doesn’t impact the decision to get vaccinated or get the booster.

    I also have been vaccinated (two shots of Moderna) and I will get the booster when it is available. However, I got vaccinated by choice and was not mandated to get it. I think mandates are not the right way to handle this situation.

    The benefits of the vaccination in preventing disease and lowering the chance of hospitalization and/or death are very clear to me. My whole family agrees and we all chose to get vaccinated.

    But if a person has recovered from COVID-19 and has natural immunity they are in at least as good a position as a vaccinated person (and maybe even better according to some studies). The debate matters to public policy. Should a person lose their job when they have natural immunity and refuse to get vaccinated? I say no. Other peoples opinions may vary.

  9. “Should a person lose their job when they have natural immunity and refuse to get vaccinated?”

    Yes. Placing your own ignorance and freedumbs above the safety of those around you is asinine — but that’s the level of “thought” we expect from you rickA.

    1. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/vaccine-induced-immunity.html#anchor_1635540449320

      “A systematic review and meta-analysis including data from three vaccine efficacy trials and four observational studies from the US, Israel, and the United Kingdom, found no significant difference in the overall level of protection provided by infection as compared with protection provided by vaccination; this included studies from both prior to and during the period in which Delta was the predominant variant [79]. In this review, the randomized controlled trials appeared to show higher protection from mRNA vaccines whereas the observational studies appeared to show protection to be higher following infection.”

      The science shows no difference between natural immunity and vaccine immunity – so how is a recovered COVID person with natural immunity “placing your own ignorance and freedumbs above the safety of those around you”?

    2. “so how is a recovered COVID person with natural immunity “placing your own ignorance and freedumbs above the safety of those around you”?”

      Your lack of ability to read and understand the article you cited explains that.

  10. Whenever rickA posts something that “supports” his view your first thoughts should be:

    – Is it from one of his racist/white supremacists/authoritarian “goto” sites? In this case the answer is no — a rare event for him
    – Did he read it? It’s always hard to answer this since he often seems to post things based on headline alone. That said — I’m not sure he read this
    – How much did he cherry pick the results? As usual, the answer here is “immensely”

    So let’s see.

    HIs portion is the first paragraph after the “Comparison of Infection- and Vaccine-induced Immune Responses”. He’s got it so I won’t repeat it. However, here is the very next paragraph.

    A more recent analysis of data from a network of 187 hospitals in the United States found that, among more than 7,000 COVID-19–like illness hospitalizations whose prior infection or vaccination occurred 90–179 days beforehand, there was a 5.5 times higher odds of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 among previously infected patients than among fully vaccinated patients . This study included data on persons more recently infected and/or vaccinated than the studies in the systematic review, though the authors noted one limitation of the design was the potential of missing testing that may have occurred outside of the healthcare network.

    Something of a mixed message there, but not the strong support for rickA’s position he wants to imply is found in this article. The mixed message continues in the next paragraph.

    The Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom used data from a large-scale longitudinal community survey of COVID-19 to compare the risk of infection among fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, unvaccinated/previously infected, and unvaccinated/uninfected persons during two different periods) when Alpha was the predominant variant (December 2020–May 2021)) when Delta was the predominant variant (May–August 2021) . Based on results that included over 26,000 RT-PCR positive tests, they found full vaccination to provide the greatest protection during the Alpha predominant period (79% vs. 65% reduction in risk), but equivalent protection from full vaccination and infection during the Delta predominant period (67% vs. 71% reduction in risk)./blockquote

    So that gives some evidence of equivalence for protection based on reduction in risk (note: not risk, reduction of risk).

    On to the next section,
    Vaccine-induced Immune Responses after Previous Infection

    Although there appears to be varying evidence regarding the relative protection that occurs after surviving COVID-19 as compared with completing vaccination, there is substantial immunologic and increasing epidemiologic evidence that vaccination following infection further increases protection against subsequent illness among those who have been previously infected.

    Not an equivocal statement. Further:

    In studies directly comparing risk of reinfection among previously infected individuals who were never vaccinated versus individuals who were vaccinated after infection, most, but not all, studies show a benefit of vaccination.

    That doesn’t match his take. Maybe later?

    A later section

    The Risk of Reinfection in Unvaccinated vs. Vaccinated Individuals with a History of Infection

    This section has these two paragraphs

    In studies directly comparing risk of reinfection among previously infected individuals who were never vaccinated versus individuals who were vaccinated after infection, most, but not all, studies show a benefit of vaccination. One retrospective cohort study described risk of reinfection from December 2020–May 2021 among 2,579 US-based healthcare users previously infected with SARS-CoV-2, about 47% of whom were vaccinated over the course of the study. Investigators did not detect any cases of reinfection, regardless of vaccination status during 5 months of observation and so could not detect a benefit of vaccination. In contrast, a case-control study conducted among 738 residents of Kentucky with reported infection during March–December 2020 found that previously infected persons who were unvaccinated had 2.3 times greater odds of reinfection during May–June 2021 than previously infected but vaccinated individuals. Both studies occurred before Delta became the dominant variant in the United States.

    Results for variants prior to Delta maybe not as relevant today. Moving on.

    More recent observational cohort studies including over 700,000 health system users in Israel and over 11,000 healthcare workers in India reported that history of prior infection provided greater protection from subsequent infection than vaccination alone, but overall risk of infection was lowest among those that were vaccinated following infection during periods of Delta predominance. In the systematic review described above, a pooled analysis across seven studies showed a modest but significant increase in protection from infection when previously infected individuals were vaccinated .

    So vaccination following infection “won” there.

    Is there a conclusion section? Yes. Here is the opening paragraph:

    Multiple studies in different settings have consistently shown that infection with SARS-CoV-2 and vaccination each result in a low risk of subsequent infection with antigenically similar variants for at least 6 months. Numerous immunologic studies and a growing number of epidemiologic studies have shown that vaccinating previously infected individuals significantly enhances their immune response and effectively reduces the risk of subsequent infection, including in the setting of increased circulation of more infectious variants.

    Infection grants greater protection so vaccinating people who’ve been infected isn’t worth it? Not the message in this article.

    I still don’t know whether rickA read this or not, but if he did he sure as hell didn’t understand it.

    1. It is interesting how you ignore the paragraph I did cite:

      “A systematic review and meta-analysis including data from three vaccine efficacy trials and four observational studies from the US, Israel, and the United Kingdom, found no significant difference in the overall level of protection provided by infection as compared with protection provided by vaccination . . .”

      My point is there is no difference between a person who has been infected and recovered and a person who has been vaccinated – at least as far as the CDC is concerned.

      In fact, I have never said “vaccinating people who’ve been infected isn’t worth it”. In fact I said the best protection was provided by getting sick, recovering and then getting the vaccine.

      My point is that people who have natural immunity – which is just as good as vaccine immunity, and according to observational studies – even better – shouldn’t be fired for not getting vaccinated.

      Apparently it is you who cannot read.

  11. No asshole, you’re ignoring their conclusion. As well as all the comments in the file that contradict your assertion.

  12. RickA, vaccines have not produced tens of millions of cases of people with long-term debilitating long covid. Vaccines have not killed over five million people around the world, including approaching 800,000 in the United States alone. Anyone advocating natural infection of Sars-Covid 2 to achieve herd immunity is seriously short of marbles in their head. The way you write seems to suggest that getting infected with covid has benefits in terms of immunity.

    It doesn’t. And people who are unvaccinated are mostly moronic, selfish idiots who are part of a death cult that appears to want to drag the pandemic on as long as possible. If they were infected with the original variant in 2020 and somehow think they are now immune from Delta, they are as daft as you. Getting vaccinated regardless of whether one was previously infected or not is common sense.

    1. The way you write seems to suggest that getting infected with covid has benefits in terms of immunity.

      He, (RickA) is a silly fellow. The vaccine team from Queensland Australia found during trials that their vaccine gave stronger immunity from Covid-19 than getting an infection. They did hit a problem with the way they tried to constrain the shape of their spike inhibitor using a very small engineered fragment from a HIV strain. Some tests for anti-bodies showed up HIV. So they missed getting license to roll out but are now reworking their methodology. This in spite of the short-sighted Aussie government who withdrew funding.

      If RickA can watch this episode of BBC’s Horizon then he might learn a thing or three.

  13. Note that insurrectionist and fan of assault on under-age women matt gaetz is still promoting the “immunity from covid is far better than the vaccine” nonsense. You have to wonder what it’s like promoting ideas that result in the death of many people who believe you — is there any remorse?

    1. You have to wonder what it’s like promoting ideas that result in the death of many people who believe you — is there any remorse?

      Not seen any regret let alone remorse from our pet Republican. Even when it is clear ideological ignorance is a killer.

      Areas that voted for Trump by at least 60% in November 2020 had 2.7 times the death rate than counties that voted heavily for Biden,,,

      People in counties that voted Trump more likely to die from Covid – study

  14. It is true that I feel no regret or remorse for my opinions on COVID (or anything really).

    That is because I do not believe that I control the lives of other people. Everybody has agency. Everybody gets to make their own decisions. And everybody gets to live with the consequences of their own decisions.

    I feel no more regret or remorse for my opinions than I am sure you feel for your opinions.

    Lets do a test. Do you feel any regret or remorse for your opinion on abortion if someone makes their own decision to get an abortion? I am guessing no – because a woman has the right to choose and who are you to control a woman’s body – right?

    It is the same for me. I chose to get vaccinated and get the booster. If somebody else chooses not to get the vaccination I feel no regret or remorse for that decision – because it wasn’t mine to make in the first place. Even if that hypothetical person were to die I wouldn’t feel any regret or remorse. Their decision, their consequences.

    I think you, dean and jeffh are suffering from a bad case of guilt by association. As if all republicans have the same opinion on vaccination and all republicans should suffer regret and remorse because republican death rates are higher. But no – I never take responsibility for someone else’s decision

    I suspect part of this disconnect is that republicans and libertarians believe in individual responsibility – while you support vaccine mandates – i.e. the opposite of individual responsibility.

    Something is a little off about the study you cite. Obviously more democrats have died from COVID because the counties which went heavily for Biden are more urban and have most of the population in them, while republicans tend to live in less populated counties. So something about converting the absolute number of deaths to deaths per 100k and then comparing rates is creating this talking point. But if it makes you feel better to think more republicans are dying from covid than democrats – well enjoy!

    1. The difference, which is too much for you to understand, is that you advocate a path that puts people at increased risk if they take your advice. You are advocating for harm over safety.

      But give never been an honest person, or ethical, so it isn’t out of character for you.

    2. Except that my advice is to get vaccinated, and I have stated that several times on this very blog. That has been my choice and it seems like the smart decision (to me) given my personal cost benefit analysis.

      I think you are getting my position against mandates confused with my position on vaccination. I am against mandates – but for vaccination. I would just persuade and not force.

    3. Oh, the slithy tove uses illogical rhetoric to miss the point.

      If somebody else chooses not to get the vaccination I feel no regret or remorse for that decision – because it wasn’t mine to make in the first place.

      The point here is that you are displaying no regret or remorse for making arguments that aid anti-vaxers rather than doing the right thing which is to condemn them for their lack of logical responsibility to others.

      Once again you demonstrate that you belong to that cohort, ‘who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought’, Peter Medawar.

      Medawar should count his lucky stars he did not live to see the advent of Fox News, and what passes for scientific “discussion” these days. All of this was brought to mind by the recent discussions here at S&R between Brian Angliss and Burt Rutan, and once again being forced to confront what Medawar describes as people’s “active willingness to be deceived.”

      Surrounded by people “educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought”

      Richard Dawkins, in his collection of commentated essays, ‘A Devil’s Chaplan’, describes the thinking that Medawar de-constructs in the Chapter ‘Postmodernism Disrobed’, which is well worth a read, the other chapters also.

    4. Lionel:

      When you say I am making arguments aiding anti-vaxers, I assume you are referring to my opinion that natural immunity is better than vaccination immunity. Is that correct?

      That fact is not an argument I am using to convince people not to get vaccinated, as my advice is to get vaccinated. In fact, I have pointed out that hybrid immunity (getting sick, recovering and then being vaccinated or visa versa) seems to be the best protection.

      Here is another study which shows that natural immunity is better than vaccine immunity:

      https://www.news-medical.net/news/20211207/Comparison-of-waning-COVID-19-immunity-between-vaccinated-and-infected-individuals.aspx

      Getting mad at a fact is not productive.

    5. When you say I am making arguments aiding anti-vaxers, I assume you are referring to my opinion that natural immunity is better than vaccination immunity. Is that correct? That fact …

      It is not a fact that natural immunity is better than vaccine immunity. You’ve been shown that it’s not true. Framing that bit of bullshit as your “opinion” is simply an attempt at dodging by you. Spreading a lie as your opinion still means you’re lying.

  15. RickA writes, with little irony: “I suspect part of this disconnect is that republicans and libertarians believe in individual responsibility – while you support vaccine mandates – i.e. the opposite of individual responsibility.”

    That is the problem. Republicans and libertarians do not give a damn about ‘individual responsibility’. Quite the opposite: they think only about themselves. The implications of their ‘freedom’ on other people means nothing to them. They are the kinds of people who demand the right to not be vaccinated, the right to become infected with covid, and the right to be able to go wherever they like while they are infected, regardless of the effects on other people in the community. Their mantra is, ‘If you don’t want to get infected, stay out of my way’. I have seen numerous people writing this. They demand unlimited freedom regardless of how that affects others. If they infect their neighbors or people in a store with covid, well, tough, those they infect should have stayed home. It was their fault for being in the store at the same time they were there sneezing and coughing and spreading covid.

    The main reason for rejecting vaccines has nothing to do with vaccine safety. It is based on political ideology. Simpletons on the right somehow think they are sticking it to the libs by rejecting vaccines. This reveals how utterly stupid many of them are.

  16. The main reason for rejecting vaccines has nothing to do with vaccine safety. It is based on political ideology.

    No doubt about that: you only need to listen to rand paul or any of the other republican leaders ranting about the overstep of requiring vaccines while lying about effectiveness of the shots (as rickA repeatedly does: lack of honesty and intentional falsehoods aren’t limited to the upper echelons of the modern right) to see that. They are simply upset that there is a competent president doing his best to get a handle on the current situation, as opposed the criminal they support who actively worked against public safety when he was “in office”.

    Like we’ve said before: the modern right and people who support them (like rickA) are the biggest ongoing threats to democracy currently in existence.

  17. RickA is behind the times. Natural immunity seems to be fairly ineffective against omicron. It seems like with this variant prior infection does little to confer resistance against highly mutated new variants. It is a case of going back to square one.

    Regardless of that, what RickA implies is that becoming infected with covid is actually not a bad thing after all, if that confers immunity of some sort afterwards. Let’s take this further. Are you implying, RickA, that if natural infection is not so bad, then exercising your ‘individual rights’ and freely spreading the virus to others is also not so bad either? After all, since you constantly harp on about the supposed benefits of natural immunity, then in your bizarre world-view perhaps naturally infecting others is good as well? Do you think that infected people are doing them a favor?

    Again, ‘natural immunity’ presupposes that one survives infection and does not suffer from long covid. Millions of people have paid the ultimate price of covid infection and never made it to the safe herd immunity zone. Even more have survived the virus only to suffer lengthy and debilitating symptoms for months afterwards. Thus, getting infected with covid carries enormous risks.

    1. RickA is behind the times. Natural immunity seems to be fairly ineffective against omicron.

      Indeed. Rolling through to mid 2022 we see this:

      After all, these variations on Omicron are not more severe, but they do have the capacity to reinfect people, even those who have had a previous version of Omicron. This is further evidence that reaching “herd immunity” (where enough people are vaccinated or infected to stop further circulation) against Covid-19 is probably impossible.

      Note that pie-in-the-sky nature of ‘herd immunity’.

      But still I see that the measures used to avoid infection are not being taken by many despite:

      Forgive me if you’d heard this one before, but masks and ventilation are still important measures we can take.

      downsides of using masks acknowledged and note this:

      Analysis from the Financial Times indicates that for most people in England, Covid-19 has become less lethal than seasonal flu because of the high levels of immunity after vaccination and the reduced severity of Omicron compared with Delta. In 2022, most people want to interact and live life as they see best (in a democracy where freedom is valued), given that disease severity has been blunted with vaccines.

      Don’t be complacent, another Covid wave is coming. Here’s how we can manage it

      Anti-vaxers take note, you are not exercising your freedom but being bolshie and selfish for it is ‘not all about you cupcake’.

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