Will COVID-19 vaccine protect transplant recipients? New study looks for answers

It's been nearly 5 years since Warren Shiver received a new kidney from his best friend's wife Leslie Rothbery.   

"She called me one day and said, 'I'm your match; we've got a date," Shiver says.

After 20 years of living with chronic kidney disease, the sales training consultant says it's hard to describe just what her gift means to him.

 "I mean there has been nothing more transformative, or more of a blessing in my life, than receiving Leslie's kidney," he says.

This spring, Shiver, who is 50 and married with two daughters, got the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as he was eligible, knowing, with a suppressed immune system, he was high-risk for complications of the virus.

"So, anything I could do to protect myself, protect my family, I thought was important," Shiver says. "It was really a no-brainer for me."

Although transplant recipients were not part of the COVID-19 vaccine trials, most transplant centers in the US recommend organ recipients get vaccinated.

Still, Dr. Raymond Rubin, Chief Scientific Officer of the Piedmont Transplant Institute, estimates only about half of the transplant recipients have received their shots.

"I'm concerned that these are vulnerable patients who, if they got exposed to COVID infections, could get seriously ill," Dr. Rubin says. "We probably have over 300 patients in our own practice so far who have had COVID, and a considerable number who have died, unfortunately."

Dr. Rubin and Piedmont Atlanta Hospital are part of the COVE Transplant clinical trial, a new study to measure how well the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine works in liver and kidney recipients, many of whom take drugs to suppress their immune system and keep their body from rejecting their new organ.

"A realistic concern is safety, and how do we know, for example, if we stimulate the immune system with a vaccine, that there is not an increased risk of, say, rejecting the organs they have," Dr. Rubin says.  "That has not been shown so far, thankfully.

For the next 13 months, Rubin says, the study will follow about 220 kidney and liver recipients and 20 healthy volunteers to measure the level of protective antibodies they produce after receiving the two-dose vaccine and how long the protection from the vaccine will last.

Researchers will also compare how the two groups respond to the vaccine.

Rubin is hoping transplant patients who have been on the fence about getting vaccinated will volunteer for the study.

"However it's the most important thing, and the message we've been really consistent about from the beginning, is we just want them to get vaccinated, one way or another," he says.

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