Does COVID Vaccine Protect Cancer Patients From Delta Variant?
- The Delta variant now accounts for 51.7 percent of COVID cases in the U.S., but the level of protection for vaccinated cancer patients is unclear.
- Patients with blood cancer, individuals undergoing chemotherapy, and stem cell recipients have struggled to produce antibodies in studies.
- Oncologists are recommending that cancer patients continue to wear a mask.
The COVID vaccine provides some immunity against the Delta variant, but it is currently unknown specifically how effective it is for some cancer patients.Read More
And while most cancer patients have responded well to the vaccine, some individuals are producing no antibodies even after a second dose.
“Patients that have hematological malignancies [blood cancers] such as leukemia and lymphoma, as well as transplant patients, such as bone marrow transplant or solid organ transplant, like heart and kidney, lung – they do not mount a strong immune response to the vaccination,” explains Dr. John N. Greene, chief of infectious diseases at the Moffitt Cancer Center.
“And there’s various degrees of response from 0 percent to 80 or 90 percent, depending on how immunosuppressed they are and where they are in their treatment and how far out they are from transplant.”
Delta Variant Now Prominent Strain of COVID-19 in the U.S.
According to the most recent CDC report, the Delta variant now accounts for 51.7 percent of COVID cases in the U.S. as of July 3. This seismic spread comes after the variant has already wreaked havoc around the globe, forcing countries back into lockdown and prompting the World Health Organization to reinstate its mask mandate regardless of vaccination status.
But here in the U.S., the CDC says vaccinated Americans do not need to wear a mask except in rare instances mostly related to travel or if visiting COVID-19 hotspots.
“The problem with a lot of the variants, especially the Delta variant and others, is that if you have a low immune response or low antibody titer, which many of these patients would have, it may not be protective against getting an infection,” says Dr. Greene.
“So for these immunosuppressed cancer patients, there is no guarantee that their vaccine is effective because [antibody testing] is not recommended outside of a research setting to actually measure their immune response or their antibody levels. And therefore, since it remains a mystery, they should continue to wear a mask and not go into large crowds where people could infect them and others visiting them.”
He then adds: “I think that’s pretty sound logic because these immunosuppressed patients and people are at higher risk of serious illness if they were to catch COVID-19.”
Dr. Greene’s recommendation seemed to be common among most individuals in the world of oncology.
“We recommend that cancer patients wear masks indoors; outdoors is optional,” Dr. Ben Neel, director, NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center tells Survivor Net.
He then adds: “Unless otherwise instructed by their doctor.”
CDC Guidance on Delta Variant
The CDC’s current recommendation regarding immunocompromised patients is:
“If you have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, you may NOT be fully protected even if you are fully vaccinated. Talk to your healthcare provider. Even after vaccination, you may need to continue taking all precautions.”
Former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden offered some guidance in a piece for Elemental.
“Based on experience from other vaccines and preliminary data on the effects of immunosuppression and response to Covid vaccines, some people who are immunosuppressed may not be as well protected from infection. These people may want to wear masks to limit the risk of infection, particularly when in high-risk settings such as indoor locations with many people present,” Dr. Frieden said.
“The spectrum of immunosuppression is vast, and if you have immunosuppressive conditions or are on immunosuppressive medications, consult with your doctor about whether you may need to take additional precautions to prevent Covid even after being vaccinated.”
He then closed out with some good news, saying: “Also, stay tuned to the possibility of better blood tests to check immunity (none are proven to be accurate now) and additional doses of vaccine for immunosuppressed people.”
Dr. Otis Brawley, the former Chief Medical and Scientific Officer and Executive Vice President of the American Cancer Society, previously told Survivor Net that he too was uncertain about the new mask guidance.
“I have mixed emotions about this. While it signals things are improving, I worry about variants of COVID that the vaccine does not protect against,” said Dr. Brawley, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
“I also worry about non-cancer patients vaccinated, but the vaccine did not stimulate their immune system and I worry about cancer patients who have an impaired immune system such that the vaccine is less effective.”
He continued: “People tend to forget that the mask protects people around the wearer from the wearer more than it protects the wearer from exposure.”
The National Cancer Institute is currently sponsoring a trial for a vaccine that is specifically designed to protect individuals with cancer from contracting COVID-19. That trial is still in the recruiting stages.