Introduction: While the approval of three commercial vaccines for the SARS-CoV-2 virus has provided upwards of 95% protection against the coronavirus for healthy subjects, the efficacy among patients with hematologic malignancies remains unknown. Immune dysfunction and impaired humoral responses to other vaccines are well documented in patients with CLL and B-cell lymphomas. Furthermore, they suffer increased risk of morbidity and mortality with Covid-19 infections compared to healthy controls. As such, the immune response elicited by the available Covid-19 vaccines in these patients is of utmost importance to investigate.

Methods: We performed a prospective exploratory analysis in CLL and B-cell lymphoma patients to evaluate humoral and T-cell responses to the commercially available mRNA Covid-19 vaccines. The objective was to obtain samples at baseline and 2-3 weeks post-vaccination, although some samples were obtained outside of this timeframe. IgG to the SARS-CoV-2 spike receptor-binding domain (RBD) was quantified using the ImmunoCAP platform (Thermo Fisher); results were compared to data from 167 subjects in a healthy vaccine cohort at the University of Virginia. T-cell responses to spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 were measured in 3 NHL patients and 3 matched healthy controls at 2-3 weeks post-2nd vaccine dose, by T cell receptor dependent activation-induced marker (AIM) assay using pooled peptides spanning spike protein.

Results: Among 18 patients currently evaluable, median age is 67 y and 72% are male. Diagnoses include CLL (5), marginal zone lymphoma (MZL; 4), diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (3), follicular lymphoma (1), mantle cell lymphoma (MCL;4), and Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia (1). All patients except 1 MZL patient are currently receiving or have received systemic treatment for their hematologic malignancy. Treatments include immunochemotherapy in 5 patients, Bruton's tyrosine kinase inhibitors (BTKi) with or without anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody therapy in 5, single agent anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody in 4, and other targeted therapy in 4 patients including venetoclax, lenalidomide, and bortezomib. Two patients had received prior autologous stem cell transplantation, 1 patient allogeneic transplantation, and 1 patient chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy. Among patients on therapy (n=10), median time from start of current treatment to Covid-19 vaccine was 136 days (range 13 - 829d). In patients who had completed therapy (n=8), median time from end of last treatment to vaccine was 153 days (range 37 - 355d). Seven patients had a blood sample drawn between 1 week and 1 month post-second mRNA vaccine dose.

IgG antibody levels to spike RBD were markedly lower in NHL/CLL patients compared to those observed in the control cohort (median 2.1 µg/mL [IQR 0.23-7.6 µg/mL] versus 60.3 µg/mL [IQR 42.5-87.0 µg/mL], Mann-Whitney P<0.001, Figure 1). Of the 16 samples that were obtained post-vaccine dose 2, nine had IgG levels less than 2 µg/mL (manufacturer lower threshold of detection), whereas only 5 of 252 samples from the control cohort were less than this level (Chi-square P<0.001, RR =39.6 (95%CI 15.1-100)). Antibody responses were independent of type of therapy (Figure 2).

The percentage of total lymphocytes and T cells was generally reduced in NHL patients versus controls; however, CD4+ T cells responding to spike protein were readily detected, despite the absence of antibody responses in 2 of these patients, both of whom had MCL. Curiously, 2 patients (1 MZL with and 1 MCL patient without antibodies) displayed a higher percentage of activated CD4+ T cells compared to controls, and CD8+ T cells also responded in each of these patients. T-cell responses were specific for spike protein as evidenced by no response to peptides of whole nucleoprotein.

Conclusions: Compared to a reference cohort, patients with B-cell malignancies, both treatment-naïve and on treatment, have impaired antibody response to the commercially available mRNA Covid-19 vaccines. Despite this, virus-responsive T-cells can be readily detected, even in the absence of antibodies. Further research is needed to determine whether antibody levels can be used as a biomarker for vaccine efficacy, whether the presence of virus-specific T-cells confers protection in the absence of antibodies, and to determine the effect of booster doses of vaccine on immune response.


Wilson:Thermo-Fisher Phadia: Research Funding. Woodfolk:Regeneron: Other: Salary Support, Research Funding; NIH/NIAID: Other: Salary support, Research Funding; University of Virginia: Other: Salary Support; Regeneron: Other: research sponsor and salary support; FDA: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Clinical and Experimental Allergy: Other: Editorial Board. Portell:Abbvie: Research Funding; Aptitude Health: Honoraria; Merck: Honoraria, Research Funding; Xencor: Research Funding; Pharmacyclics: Honoraria; BeiGene: Honoraria, Research Funding; Targeted Oncology: Honoraria; Morphosys: Honoraria; SeaGen: Research Funding; TG Therapeutics: Honoraria, Research Funding; Acerta/AstraZeneca: Research Funding; Kite: Honoraria, Research Funding; Genentech: Research Funding; VelosBio: Research Funding. Williams:Janssen: Consultancy, Research Funding; Pharmacyclics: Research Funding.

Sign in via your Institution