COVID-19 vaccine less effective for some cancer patients with weakened immune systems

Posted at 4:15 PM, Jul 09, 2021

Imagine if you were to get the COVID-19 vaccine, only to have it be ineffective and not produce protective antibodies. That's the reality for some cancer patients whose immune systems just aren't responding.

Getting cancer treatments is part of Khalid Rehman's daily life. He's in remission for the third time, after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2011. When he was finally eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, he jumped at the chance.

“I was hoping it would protect me and I was skeptical because I knew I had this disease which is a disease of the immune system. So, to begin with, the immune system was not the most robust one,” Rehman said.

His cancer treatment suppresses the immune system, but he had hope and got the vaccine.

“The first test came back negative, the other showed a little antibody titer. And, the second showed it (antibody levels) was declining again and then it disappeared,” He tells us, "I’m assuming I’m not vaccinated."

Which means, remember all those precautions - masking and distancing and isolating? He's back in that cycle and, at least for now, it's more effective than the vaccine.

"I’ve been avoiding going indoors anywhere, I have not visited my children or grandchildren since the beginning of last year, I’ve not gone into houses of worship, I’ve not gone into movie theaters,” Rehman said.

Oliver Van Oekelen is a physician scientist at Mount Sinai Health System and said, “an important question is what can we do for the patients that don’t have antibodies - to some extent, nobody knows. That’s a question to scientists and researchers that’s a call to action we need to figure something out.”

"The overall level of antibodies was significantly lower with the patients with multiple myeloma in comparison with healthy controls that were of the same age approximately of our patients and they had much higher levels of antibody,” Van Oekelen said.

Patients like Rehman, he says, need to be strictly monitored.

“It's tough for our patients, our study in our eyes, underscores the need of doing routine blood tests on multiple myeloma patients.”

Rehman says he'll still see his family, from a distance, with the mask on. And he has to decide what's next.

“Will I have to be protecting myself and locked in for the rest of my life or will I take the risk of stepping out and enjoying normal life as normal as it can be under the new norm," Rehman said.

The hope, Van Oekelen says, lies in the number of people who get the vaccine.