COVID-19 vaccines: Safe for immunocompromised patients?


Coronavirus vaccines have become a reality, as they are now being approved and authorized for use in a growing number of countries including the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just issued emergency authorization for the use of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech. Close behind is the vaccine developed by Moderna, which has also applied to the FDA for emergency authorization.


The efficacy of a two-dose administration of the vaccine has been pegged at 95.0%, and the FDA has said that the 95% credible interval for the vaccine efficacy was 90.3%-97.6%. But as with many initial clinical trials, whether for drugs or vaccines, not all populations were represented in the trial cohort, including individuals who are immunocompromised. At the current time, it is largely unknown how safe or effective the vaccine may be in this large population, many of whom are at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications.

At a special session held during the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology, Anthony Fauci, MD, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that individuals with compromised immune systems, whether because of chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant, should plan to be vaccinated when the opportunity arises.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci

In response to a question from ASH President Stephanie J. Lee, MD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, Dr. Fauci emphasized that, despite being excluded from clinical trials, this population should get vaccinated. “I think we should recommend that they get vaccinated,” he said. “I mean, it is clear that, if you are on immunosuppressive agents, history tells us that you’re not going to have as robust a response as if you had an intact immune system that was not being compromised. But some degree of immunity is better than no degree of immunity.”

That does seem to be the consensus among experts who spoke in interviews: that as long as these are not live attenuated vaccines, they hold no specific risk to an immunocompromised patient, other than any factors specific to the individual that could be a contraindication.

Dr. Stephanie J. Lee

Dr. Stephanie J. Lee

“Patients, family members, friends, and work contacts should be encouraged to receive the vaccine,” said William Stohl, MD, PhD, chief of the division of rheumatology at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “Clinicians should advise patients to obtain the vaccine sooner rather than later.”

Kevin C. Wang, MD, PhD, of the department of dermatology at Stanford (Calif.) University, agreed. “I am 100% with Dr. Fauci. Everyone should get the vaccine, even if it may not be as effective,” he said. “I would treat it exactly like the flu vaccines that we recommend folks get every year.”

Dr. Kevin C. Wang

Dr. Kevin C. Wang

Dr. Wang noted that he couldn’t think of any contraindications unless the immunosuppressed patients have a history of severe allergic reactions to prior vaccinations. “But I would even say patients with history of cancer, upon recommendation of their oncologists, are likely to be suitable candidates for the vaccine,” he added. “I would say clinicians should approach counseling the same way they counsel patients for the flu vaccine, and as far as I know, there are no concerns for systemic drugs commonly used in dermatology patients.”

However, guidance has not yet been issued from either the FDA or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the use of the vaccine in immunocompromised individuals. Given the lack of data, the FDA has said that “it will be something that providers will need to consider on an individual basis,” and that individuals should consult with physicians to weigh the potential benefits and potential risks.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has said that clinicians need more guidance on whether to use the vaccine in pregnant or breastfeeding women, the immunocompromised, or those who have a history of allergies. The CDC itself has not yet released its formal guidance on vaccine use.


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