Experts Say Coronavirus Vaccines Won’t Protect Millions of Patients With Weakened Immune Systems

For more than a year, Dr. Andrew Wollowitz has mostly been cloistered inside his home in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

As medical director of emergency medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, Dr. Wollowitz, 63, was eager to help treat patients when the coronavirus began raging through the city last spring. But a cancer treatment in 2019 had obliterated his immune cells, leaving him defenseless against the virus, so he instead arranged to manage his staff via Zoom.

A year later, people in Dr. Wollowitz’s life are returning to some semblance of normalcy. His wife, a dancer and choreographer, is preparing to travel for work at Austria’s National Ballet Company. His vaccinated friends are getting together, but he sees them only when the weather is nice enough to sit in his backyard. “I spend very little time in public areas,” he said.

Like his friends, Dr. Wollowitz was vaccinated in January. But he did not produce any antibodies in response — nor did he expect to. He is one of millions of Americans who are immunocompromised, whose bodies cannot learn to deploy immune fighters against the virus.

Some immunocompromised people were born with absent or faulty immune systems, while others, like Dr. Wollowitz, have diseases or have received therapies that wiped out their immune defenses. Many of them produce few to no antibodies in response to a vaccine or an infection, leaving them susceptible to the virus. When they do become infected, they may suffer prolonged illness, with death rates as high as 55 percent.

Most people who have lived with immune deficiencies for a long time are likely to be aware of their vulnerability. But others have no idea that medications may have put them at risk.

“They’ll be walking around outside thinking they’re protected — but maybe they’re not,” said Dr. Lee Greenberger, chief scientific officer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which funds research on blood cancers.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Apoorva Mandavilli

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