Behind the headlines: COVID-19 vaccine efficacy in people with blood cancer

Talking about the BBC article on the COVID-19 vaccine and people affected by cancer. 

Flu vaccine

You might have seen this morning’s BBC article about the efficacy of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in people affected by cancer. The article states that protection from the first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is much lower in people affected by blood cancers than people with other types of cancer or people who don’t have cancer.

Although this information is concerning, it is not unexpected. We know that people with blood cancers often have lowered immunity and might have a lower response to vaccines than people who don’t have immune system problems. However, any protection is better than no protection at all. It is important to remember that:

  • The vaccine is safe for people affected by blood cancer.
  • The immune system is complicated. It is hard to predict who will, and who will not, respond to a vaccine. Even if you have a lower immune response than other people, vaccination is likely to offer you some protection.
  • After you’ve had your vaccination, it is important to follow the government guidance and carry on being careful to reduce your risk of infection.
 
We know this news will cause concern and anxiety amongst people affected by lymphoma. It really highlights how important it is to continue to study the effects of vaccines for lymphoma patients. We will continue to facilitate the voice of people affected by lymphoma so that we can help you to understand the situation as it changes.
Stephen Scowcroft, Director of Operations and External Affairs at Lymphoma Action

The trial this information is from hasn’t yet been published or reviewed by other scientists.

The trial involved a small number of people, and only 50 who had blood cancer. We don’t know yet what type of blood cancers these people had. This makes it difficult to work out how the data might relate to people affected by lymphoma. We do know that around half the people with blood cancer had received cancer treatment in the 15 days before their first dose of vaccine, which would also be expected to affect their immune response.

In this trial, people with cancer had a lower antibody response to their first dose of vaccine than people without cancer. The antibody response was especially low in people with blood cancers. However, antibody levels aren’t the only way of measuring how well your body responds to a vaccine. Other parts of your immune system, such as T cells, are also important. In this trial, T-cell responses to vaccination were better than antibody responses – although still lower in people with blood cancer than people without cancer. Some people with blood cancer had a T-cell response to the vaccine even if they didn’t have an antibody response.

The trial found that the antibody response to vaccination did not improve in people with blood cancer in the weeks after the first vaccine dose. This is why there is a push for the government to change their policy so people with blood cancer can have their second dose sooner. However, we don’t yet know the impact of the second dose in people with blood cancer – at either 3 weeks or 12 weeks – because the trial was too small to be able to test this accurately. In people with other types of cancer, having a second dose at 3 weeks significantly boosted the immune response.

It is important that research continues to look into the effect of the second vaccine dose in people with blood cancer so we can find out the dosing interval that gives the best possible level of protection against COVID-19.

We are working with other cancer charities to try to make sure this research is given the priority it needs, and to encourage the government to review the evidence for the vaccine dosing schedule for people affected by blood cancer.

Other trials are also looking at how effective COVID-19 vaccination is for people affected by lymphoma. We will report on these as soon as the information is available. It is likely to be a complicated picture that depends on your individual circumstances.

If you are feeling anxious about today’s news, or any other aspect of lymphoma, please contact our Helpline on freephone 0808 808 5555, or via the Live Chat on our website, from 10am to 3pm, Monday to Friday. You can also email information@lymphoma-action.org.uk

11 March 2021