I had a liver transplant in 2006. For the rest of my life, my body’s immune system will regard my transplanted liver as “foreign tissue” and will turn its arms against it as it would against a virus or bacteria. invasive. Of course, unlike a virus, I actually want to keep my new liver, so I have to take immunosuppressants. I owe my life to these drugs.
I have had a pretty difficult health history. Along with this transplant, I was confronted with a number of other illnesses, surgeries and hospitalizations. When COVID-19 happened, I didn’t have to tell myself twice to be careful. Although I am only 57 years old, it is unlikely that I would do well if I did become infected with the virus. Social distancing and mask wearing have become the order of my days. My house, my wife, my two cats, my curbside shopping and Zoom have made up most of my world over the past year.
But about 9 months ago, hope started to appear on the horizon: the next vaccine. My wife Tamara and I had theoretical conversations that echoed in households around the world: “Hold on a little longer. We can do it. The vaccine is coming!” The vaccine was tantamount to the possibility of our world opening up again, not to mention overcoming her of the fear that came with every dry cough or mild fever.
The vaccines have finally arrived. As of December, they were being administered in my home state of Oregon and the data indicated good effectiveness. That’s all I needed to hear. Medical science had saved my life on more than one occasion. I was ready, willing and impatient, without any hesitation.
Okay, okay, I’m leaving part of the story behind. I wondered about the immunosuppressive drugs I take every day: if the vaccine works by eliciting an immune response that produces immunity to COVID-19 … would immunosuppressive drugs somehow prevent for this immune response to occur?
Well, since the trials to develop the vaccines haven’t studied people like me or the nearly 11 million other people in the United States who take immunosuppressive drugs, I decided I just needed to get the shot. for the knowledge.
I received my first Moderna vaccine at the end of winter. I waited, happy with my wife, cats and Zoom as I approached my second vaccine appointment. While I waited, the hammer fell: A team of doctors from Johns Hopkins Medical School released a study of transplant recipients who received their first COVID-19 vaccine. Of course, the transplant recipients were all taking immunosuppressants.
Through a blood test, the study looked at the level of detectable antibodies found in transplant patients after the first vaccine. It had already been established for the much larger population without immunosuppressants that after the first vaccine, 100% possessed the antibodies. However, worryingly, the Hopkins study found that only 17% of subjects had COVID-19 antibodies.
“Oh oh.” A big “uh-oh” filled with dread. I contacted the Hopkins team, signed up for the study, and got an antibody blood test which, of course, reported, “No antibodies detectable.”
The latest results from the study on the antibody response in immunocompromised transplant patients after their second dose of vaccine are also not encouraging.
What does all this mean? The picture is not entirely clear. More studies are needed, more data needs to be accumulated. But the bottom line is this: COVID-19 vaccines may not work – or may work quite imperfectly – for people taking immunosuppressive drugs. This includes people being treated for so many autoimmune diseases.
For me – and perhaps for millions of others – this means that our worlds may not open up as soon as we think we do. It also means something potentially much more serious: After being vaccinated, we might imagine ourselves having immunity to COVID-19 when we may have little or no immunity at all. The consequences of such a situation are obvious.
So far, I’m not aware that the CDC or other major health organizations have issued alerts to people like me about immunosuppressants. It has to happen as soon as possible. Lives are at stake. It’s science in action. New evidence is coming and the responsible agencies should be responsive. It’s hard enough having to stay in my burrow when I had so hoped I could escape. It would be much worse to contract COVID-19 simply because of a lack of information.
David Goldstein is a former SAT instructor and now disabled transplant patient.