PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A small study out of Lifespan Cancer Institute at Rhode Island Hospital concluded certain cancer patients may not gain adequate protection from COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr. Thomas Ollila, a hematologist and oncologist at Lifespan Cancer Institute, said he felt the need to start such a study because the COVID-19 vaccine trials excluded patients with weakened immune systems and those taking medications that lower the body’s immune response, leaving them to wonder how effective the shots would be for them.
When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its mask guidelines for fully vaccinated Americans in May, it noted immunocompromised people “should be counseled about the potential for reduced immune responses to the COVID-19 vaccines.”
Dr. Ollila says it was a tough conversation to have with patients.
“During this time, cases were down, people weren’t wearing masks in the supermarket anymore and we had to tell our patients, ‘Yeah, I know you’ve been vaccinated, but please, please act like you haven’t been,'” he said.
Dr. Ollila and researchers looked at 160 fully vaccinated patients with hematologic cancers, or cancers of the blood, and checked their antibody levels to see how the vaccines were working.
While it was not a large study, compared to the trials of thousands that led to emergency use authorization of the country’s three vaccines, Dr. Ollila said the results still said a lot.
“Three people contracted COVID infections, and one person actually died,” Ollila said. “I can tell you that out of 160 people who are vaccinated, you really shouldn’t expect someone to die and that makes us very, very concerned.”
Ollila says none of the three who got sick had detectable antibody levels.
“When they’re negative, the vaccine’s not working,” he added.
The study results come as federal regulators say some Americans with weakened immune systems can now get a third COVID-19 vaccine dose.
Dr. Ollila says an additional dose could help those further out from therapy but are still considered at risk.
However, he says a third dose may still not provide enough protection to some.
“if the vaccine’s not working for them, then the best way that we can protect these people is for anyone who, say is on the fence about getting vaccinated themselves, to go get vaccinated,” Ollila said.
Dr. Ollila also says he hopes the CDC changes its guidance on who can get a third dose to include not just people on active therapy, but patients who have completed therapy in the last year, which he considers to still be at risk.
Ollila and study co-authors concluded hematologic cancer patients may benefit from ongoing protective measures, including masks, social distancing, and screening. Added consideration should be made to prioritizing vaccination for family members and caregivers to protect the patients themselves.
With possible infection, Ollila and other researchers also recommend testing regardless of vaccination status, and treatment with COVID-19–specific monoclonal antibody therapy.