COVID-19 Vaccine And Lupus

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an uncertain time for many. Fortunately, researchers have been working hard to learn more about the virus, ways to treat it, and potential vaccines. However, with new vaccines making their way to the market, many with lupus have concerns. Is the vaccine safe for people with lupus? Will lupus or its medicines impact how effective the vaccine is?

Although the information is changing daily, what we know right now about these issues is discussed below.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines

The 2 main vaccines up for discussion right now are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Both of these vaccines received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that their approval process was accelerated because their potential benefits greatly outweigh any risks.

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Even though their approval was faster than usual, both vaccines were extensively tested in clinical trials. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines. There are other vaccines currently under development as well.1-3

What is an mRNA vaccine?

Typically, vaccines contain inactivated (killed) parts of a virus. In some cases, they may even contain a weakened, live version of a virus. However, new COVID-19 vaccines are unique. They carry mRNA instead. This mRNA is a set of genetic material that acts as instructions. When injected into the body, it tells a person’s cells to make a specific protein. The protein our cells are told to make is called the spike protein.1-3

This spike protein plays a role in how COVID-19 infects humans. When our body makes this protein outside of being infected with COVID-19, it generates antibodies. These antibodies help protect us from COVID-19 infection if we are exposed to the actual virus later on.1-3

What to expect from the vaccine

Because the vaccine does not contain any live virus, the vaccine cannot directly cause COVID-19. However, there are still some side effects that can occur. These are mostly related to the actual injection of the vaccine, like arm soreness or redness. Other potential side effects are related to the body making protective antibodies and are not dangerous. These include body aches, low-grade fevers, chills, and fatigue.1-3

The results from the clinical trials on these vaccines show that they are both very effective and that side effects typically go away within a few days. For the strongest protection against COVID-19, a second dose of the vaccine is needed 3 weeks after the first.1-3

Safety and efficacy of the vaccine in those with lupus

When a new product is being tested in clinical trials, the primary goal is to determine safety and efficacy in the general population. This means those with significant medical conditions are not the focus of initial studies. We do not have specific data on how the vaccine might impact people with lupus, including if the vaccine triggers lupus flares. We also do not know how well a person with lupus’ immune system responds to the vaccine (giving them future protection).1-3

However, we know that severe COVID-19 infection can be quite serious, and the risks of getting the vaccine, regardless of underlying medical conditions, are low. This has led many experts to suggest that the potential benefits of vaccination outweigh the minimal risks.1-3

Moving forward, studies on the vaccine will focus on special groups, including those with underlying medical conditions like lupus. This will allow us to have more information on the vaccine’s effects in the future.

Lupus drugs and the vaccine

Many people taking immune system-impacting drugs may have concerns about their response to the vaccine. In order for the vaccine to protect us in the future, a strong immune system response needs to be generated, and antibodies against COVID-19 need to be formed. There has been some concern that people taking medicines that impact their immune system may not develop a full immune system response and may not have as strong of protection as others.1-3

This is especially of concern for people on lupus drugs like Benlysta (belimumab). Benlysta impacts a person’s B cells. These are immune system cells responsible for generating antibodies. If the number or function of B cells is impaired due to drugs, there may a weakened response to the vaccine. However, at this time, we do not have data to suggest that anyone taking these drugs (or on other immune system suppressing drugs) will have different responses.1-3

Even if a person on these drugs may have a weaker immune response, many experts believe that at least creating a partial immune response to COVID-19 is better than no immune response at all. Although we do not know for sure, a minimal response may still provide protection from severe COVID-19 in the future.1-3

Ultimately, the decision to get vaccinated depends on many different personal factors. If you are considering getting the COVID-19 vaccine or have further questions, talk with your doctor. They can help you weigh all of the potential benefits and risks and determine if vaccination is right in your specific situation.1-3

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