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VERIFY: Early results of vaccines for people with suppressed immune systems aren't great

A study from Johns Hopkins University showed that 46% of organ transplant recipients did not get antibodies from the vaccines.

WASHINGTON — How well do the vaccines protect people who have compromised immune systems? It has been one of the collective fears in the medical community throughout the pandemic: How do we protect this vulnerable population against a deadly virus like COVID-19?

Several times this year, viewers have sent in emails asking how much immunity vaccines off people with compromised immune systems.

They generally referred to people with autoimmune diseases, like Crohn’s disease or Lupus. But others wanted to know about people on immunosuppressant drugs for organ transplants.  

This month, we got some of the first numbers from a study that looked at this population.

THE QUESTION

How much immunity do the COVID-19 vaccines give people who take immunosuppressant drugs?

THE SOURCES

Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, a physician from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Gregory Shrank, an infectious diseases expert from the University of Maryland Medical School. A new study from Johns Hopkins University.

THE ANSWER

Early studies do not show great results of immunization for immunocompromised people.

WHAT WE FOUND

"We have 10 million Americans right now who are immunosuppressed,” Dr. Nerurkar said. “There's new data emerging from Johns Hopkins and from NYU [New York University] to show that perhaps people who are immunocompromised on immunosuppressant medications may not have that antibody response after the second dose with Pfizer and Moderna.”

The Johns Hopkins University study looked at 658 organ transplant recipients who received a COVID-19 vaccine. It found 46%, did not develop any antibody response.

We asked our experts, why?

“The vaccines themselves, their intent is to stimulate the immune system as a form of training to prepare it for possible infection like with COVID-19,” Dr. Schrank said.“It creates antibodies as a major part of that preparation.”

But our experts said when the immune system is suppressed, either naturally or by drugs, it tends to block that function of a vaccine.

“The immunosuppressants limit the ability of our immune system to create those antibodies, specifically impacting our memory B cells that create antibodies, and then can then limit how effective the vaccines are,” Dr. Schrank said.

Our experts also point out that this is common with people who have suppressed immune systems in many other types of vaccines. That is to say, this was expected.

However, new teams of researchers are beginning to look at whether, or not, adding an additional booster to the vaccines might help.

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