COVID-19 vaccines: Safe for immunocompromised patients?


Boosting efficacy

Even prior to making their announcement, the American College of Rheumatology had said that they would endorse the vaccine for all patients, explained rheumatologist Brett Smith, DO, from Blount Memorial Physicians Group and East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, Alcoa. “The vaccine is safe for all patients, but the problem may be that it’s not as effective,” he said. “But we don’t know that because it hasn’t been tested.”

With other vaccines, biologic medicines are held for 2 weeks before and afterwards, to get the best response. “But some patients don’t want to stop the medication,” Dr. Smith said. “They are afraid that their symptoms will return.”

As for counseling patients as to whether they should receive this vaccine, he explained that he typically doesn’t try to sway patients one way or another until they are really high risk. “When I counsel, it really depends on the individual situation. And for this vaccine, we have to be open to the fact that many people have already made up their mind.”

There are a lot of questions regarding the vaccine. One is the short time frame of development. “Vaccines typically take 6-10 years to come on the market, and this one is now available after a 3-month study,” Dr. Smith said. “Some have already decided that it’s too new for them.”

The process is also new, and patients need to understand that it doesn’t contain an active virus and “you can’t catch coronavirus from it.”

Dr. Smith also explained that, because the vaccine may be less effective in a person using biologic therapies, there is currently no information available on repeat vaccination. “These are all unanswered questions,” he said. “If the antibodies wane in a short time, can we be revaccinated and in what time frame? We just don’t know that yet.”

Marcelo Bonomi, MD, a medical oncologist from The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, Columbus, explained that one way to ensure a more optimal response to the vaccine would be to wait until the patient has finished chemotherapy.* “The vaccine can be offered at that time, and in the meantime, they can take other steps to avoid infection,” he said. “If they are very immunosuppressed, it isn’t worth trying to give the vaccine.”

Cancer patients should be encouraged to stay as healthy as possible, and to wear masks and social distance. “It’s a comprehensive approach. Eat healthy, avoid alcohol and tobacco, and exercise. [These things] will help boost the immune system,” Dr. Bonomi said. “Family members should be encouraged to get vaccinated, which will help them avoid infection and exposing the patient.”

Jim Boonyaratanakornkit, MD, PhD, an infectious disease specialist who cares for cancer patients at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, agreed. “Giving a vaccine right after a transplant is a futile endeavor,” he said. “We need to wait 6 months to have an immune response.”

He pointed out there may be a continuing higher number of cases, with high levels peaking in Washington in February and March. “Close friends and family should be vaccinated if possible,” he said, “which will help interrupt transmission.”

The vaccines are using new platforms that are totally different, and there is no clear data as to how long the antibodies will persist. “We know that they last for at least 4 months,” said Dr. Boonyaratanakornkit. “We don’t know what level of antibody will protect them from COVID-19 infection. Current studies are being conducted, but we don’t have that information for anyone yet.”

*Correction, 1/7/21: An earlier version of this article misattributed quotes from Dr. Marcelo Bonomi.


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