Cancer patients less responsive to first COVID-19 jab

COVID-19 vaccine
The vaccination program may be leaving cancer patients more vulnerable than other members of the community. Source: Lisa Ferdinando (via Wikimedia Commons)
The new study suggests cancer patients have a weaker response to the first vaccine dose and should receive their second dose more quickly.

By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor 

24.2 million UK citizens, at time of writing,  have now received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and it is a figure that continues to increase everyday through the national vaccination rollout. Of those prioritised to receive their vaccine were cancer patients as a result of their suppressed immune system, meaning thousands had been shielding since March 2020. However, a new study this month has shown that cancer patients are less protected from COVID-19 after one dose of the vaccine than other people. 

This is a significant finding as the government decision to delay the second dose of the vaccine in order to vaccinate as many people with their first dose, may be putting cancer patients at risk. 

The study looked at 205 individuals, including 151 with lung, breast, bowel or blood cancer and looked at the level of antibodies in their blood as a result of the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. 

They found that three weeks after the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine an antibody response was detected in 39% of people with solid cancers (such as lung, breast of bowel) and in 13% of people with blood cancer. This is in stark contrast with the 97% of people without cancer displaying antibodies. 

However, encouragingly it has been shown that having a second dose three weeks after the first led to a sharp rise in antibodies to 95%, equivalent to the rest of the population. This supports the acceleration of the second dose for cancer patients.

This 95% figure was decreased to 43% for solid cancers and 8% with blood cancer if the interval was increased to five weeks. 

The researchers have explained that the trial for a longer gap was done on healthy volunteers, meaning the findings cannot be immediately transferred to vulnerable people such as cancer patients. 

Reflecting on the findings, Dr Sheeba Ishrad, oncologist and senior study author from King’s College London, said:

“One size does not fit all. Cancer treatments have profound effects on the immune system and cancer patients’ immune mechanisms are inferior. We need to be concerned about other vaccines for this population too – they do need a second dose quickly.”

She continued explaining that the results should be considered in an urgent review of vaccination timings. “Until then, it is important that cancer patients continue to observe all public health measures in place such as social distancing and shielding when attending hospitals, even after vaccination” Ishrad told. 

In light of these findings an anonymous cancer patient told Gair Rhydd:

“With data showing that the vaccine isn’t as effective for patients undergoing chemotherapy it concerns me that there is a delay between first and second doses. We are extremely vulnerable and I would be reassured to know that by having the second dose 3 weeks after the first I was being given the best possible protection against this virus.”


Many cancer charities have also issued statements, in light of the growing concern of patients. Martin Ledwick, the head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: “We know that this information could be worrying, but anyone undergoing cancer treatment should continue to follow the advice of their doctors, and we encourage all who can to take up the vaccine.”

The trial is yet to be peer reviewed and published in a scientific journal, meaning the results are yet to be finalised. The study is ongoing, with plans to continue following up patients for the first six months after their first vaccination in order to understand the full effect.

The findings are expected to be published in the coming weeks, after which it is assumed there will be an examination of evidence and a plan of action for cancer patients and their vaccines. However, at this stage the findings show the timing of COVID-19 vaccinations cannot be the same for everyone in order to elicit the desired 95% response and suggests that cancer patients should receive a faster treatment.


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