COVID-19 vaccines: Safe for immunocompromised patients?


“For example, many patients with IBD are on biologics like anti-TNF [tumor necrosis factor] therapies, which are also used in other immune-mediated inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis,” he said. “Understandably, individuals with IBD on immunosuppressive medications are concerned about the risk of severe complications due to COVID-19.”

The entire IBD community, along with the world, celebrated the announcement that multiple vaccines are protective against SARS-CoV-2, he noted. “Vaccines offer the potential to reduce the spread of COVID-19, allowing society to revert back to normalcy,” Dr. Kaplan said. “Moreover, for vulnerable populations, including those who are immunocompromised, vaccines offer the potential to directly protect them from the morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19.”

That said, even though the news of vaccines are extremely promising, some cautions must be raised regarding their use in immunocompromised populations, such as persons with IBD. “The current trials, to my knowledge, did not include immunocompromised individuals and thus, we can only extrapolate from what we know from other trials of different vaccines,” he explained. “We know from prior vaccines studies that the immune response following vaccination is less robust in those who are immunocompromised as compared to a healthy control population.”

Dr. Kaplan also pointed to recent reports of allergic reactions that have been reported in healthy individuals. “We don’t know whether side effects, like allergic reactions, may be different in unstudied populations,” he said. “Thus, the medical and scientific community should prioritize clinical studies of safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in immunocompromised populations.”

So, what does this mean for an individual with an immune-mediated inflammatory disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis who is immunocompromised? Dr. Kaplan explained that it is a balance between the potential harm of being infected with COVID-19 and the uncertainty of receiving a vaccine in an understudied population. For those who are highly susceptible to dying from COVID-19, such as an older adult with IBD, or someone who faces high exposure, such as a health care worker, the potential protection of the vaccine greatly outweighs the uncertainty.

“However, for individuals who are at otherwise lower risk – for example, young and able to work from home – then waiting a few extra months for postmarketing surveillance studies in immunocompromised populations may be a reasonable approach, as long as these individuals are taking great care to avoid infection,” he said.

No waiting needed

Joel M. Gelfand, MD, MSCE, professor of dermatology and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, feels that the newly approved vaccine should be safe for most of his patients.

Joel M. Gelfand, MD,  a professor, and director of the Psoriasis and Phototherapy Treatment Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadlphia.

Dr. Joel M. Gelfand

“Patients with psoriatic disease should get the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible based on eligibility as determined by the CDC and local public health officials,” he said. “It is not a live vaccine, and therefore patients on biologics or other immune-modulating or immune-suppressing treatment can receive it.”

However, the impact of psoriasis treatment on immune response to the mRNA-based vaccines is not known. Dr. Gelfand noted that, extrapolating from the vaccine literature, there is some evidence that methotrexate reduces response to the influenza vaccine. “However, the clinical significance of this finding is not clear,” he said. “Since the mRNA vaccine needs to be taken twice, a few weeks apart, I do not recommend interrupting or delaying treatment for psoriatic disease while undergoing vaccination for COVID-19.”

Given the reports of allergic reactions, he added that it is advisable for patients with a history of life-threatening allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis or who have been advised to carry an epinephrine autoinjector, to talk with their health care provider to determine if COVID-19 vaccination is medically appropriate.

The National Psoriasis Foundation has issued guidance on COVID-19, explained Steven R. Feldman, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology, pathology, and social sciences & health policy at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., who is also a member of the committee that is working on those guidelines and keeping them up to date. “We are in the process of updating the guidelines with information on COVID vaccines,” he said.

Dr. Steven R. Feldman

Dr. Steven R. Feldman

He agreed that there are no contraindications for psoriasis patients to receive the vaccine, regardless of whether they are on immunosuppressive treatment, even though definitive data are lacking. “Fortunately, there’s a lot of good data coming out of Italy that patients with psoriasis on biologics do not appear to be at increased risk of getting COVID or of having worse outcomes from COVID,” he said.

Patients are going to ask about the vaccines, and when counseling them, clinicians should discuss the available data, the residual uncertainty, and patients’ concerns should be considered, Dr. Feldman explained. “There may be some concern that steroids and cyclosporine would reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, but there is no concern that any of the drugs would cause increased risk from nonlive vaccines.”

He added that there is evidence that “patients on biologics who receive nonlive vaccines do develop antibody responses and are immunized.”


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