COVID-19 Vaccination in Haematology Patients: An Australia and New Zealand Consensus Position Statement
Australia and New Zealand have achieved very good control of community spread of SARS-CoV-2 during the global pandemic due to highly effective public health interventions.(1, 2) As of 20 January 2021, Australia had recorded 22,201 local cases with 909 total fatalities(3) and New Zealand had reported 1044 local cases with 25 fatalities.(4)The availability of effective vaccines offers an opportunity to consolidate this successful control and requires consideration of their application to key vulnerable populations including those with haematological disorders.
Haematological malignancies account for approximately 11% of all cancers in Australia and New Zealand.(5)Patients with lymphoid malignancies, including chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) and multiple myeloma, recipients of allogeneic stem cell transplantation and of potent B- and T-cell depleting therapies are particularly vulnerable to serious viral infections.(6-9) Haematology patients are often severely immune compromised due to their underlying disease and/or associated therapy, and experience higher rates of infection than age-matched controls.
Adults with haematological malignancies are reported to be at high risk of progression to severe disease and death from COVID-19 with an estimated mortality of 36% or greater, comparable to the mortality rate of aged care residents.(10-13) While mortality risk in paediatric patients (estimated at 4%) is lower, it is much higher than in healthy children.(11)
Patients with haematological malignancies, including lymphoid disorders, multiple myeloma, acute myeloid leukaemia and myelodysplastic syndrome appear to be at highest risk of mortality.(10, 11) Among those with lymphoid malignancies who acquire COVID-19, hospitalisation rates are up to 90% and intensive care admission rates 35%.(14) CLL patients who had previously received immunochemotherapy have a mortality of up to 60%. In a multi-national cohort of patients with multiple myeloma and COVID-19 infection, the COVID-19-related mortality rate was 33% with geographical variation from 27-57% of hospitalised patients.(12) In a myelofibrosis population study, the COVID-19 mortality was 48% (15). Limited data suggest that chronic phase chronic myeloid leukaemia patients on tyrosine kinase inhibitors with COVID-19 have mortality rates comparable to the general population.(16),(17) In myelofibrosis additional risk factors of mortality include discontinuation of ruxolitinib at COVID-19 diagnosis, possibly due to rebound inflammation.(15)
Patients with benign haematological disorders have varying outcomes depending on the underlying disease and associated co-morbidities (18-21). Patients with sickle cell disease appear to be at particular risk with an age standardised mortality ratio of 7.7 times (20).
In patients with haematological malignancies, COVID-19-related mortality is not always related to recent therapy of the underlying malignancy (11, 12, 14). Risk factors for mortality include age >60 years, active or progressive disease, ECOG performance score ≥2, absolute lymphocyte count ≤0.6 x 109/L, platelet count ≤40 x 109/L, an elevated LDH, and a raised C-reactive protein.(10, 11) In multiple myeloma additional predictors of include high risk cytogenetics (del17p, t(4;14), amp 1q or t(14;16) and renal disease.(12, 22) Furthermore, patients with haematological malignancies who recover from COVID-19 display distinct, prolonged immunological complications compared to those with solid organ malignancies who have similar rates to the general population.(23)
Impaired SARS-CoV-2 Clearance and Viral Evolution in Patients with Haematological MalignanciesPatients with haematological malignancies are unable to clear certain viruses (14, 24). Preliminary reports suggest that these patients when exposed to SARS-CoV-2 display heterogeneous humoral responses, an exhausted T cell phenotype and a high prevalence of prolonged virus shedding more so than patients with solid organ malignancies(23, 25). Therefore, these patients have an ongoing risk of recurrent infection and of onward transmission. Furthermore, preliminary data suggests that immunecompromised patients have the potential for accelerated viral evolution (25, 26). Vaccine Considerations
These data should inform future preventative efforts as Australia and New Zealand commence their vaccination campaigns. At time of writing there are two vaccines of relevance in Australia and New Zealand. The Pfizer/BioNTech SARS-Cov-2 vaccine is a first-in-class mRNA vaccine which in an international phase 3 study was administered to 43,448 participants aged 16 or older in a two dose regimen 21 days apart. The vaccine was 95% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 from seven days after the second dose. Efficacy was consistent across age, gender and ethnicity, and no serious safety concerns were reported. This trial included a small number of patients (n=76) with leukaemia or lymphoma as a co-morbidity, 36 of whom received the vaccine (27).
The AstraZeneca ChAdOx1 nCOV-19 vaccine is a replication-deficient chimpanzee adenoviral vectored vaccine given in a two dose regimen. In a pooled analysis across four studies with varying dosing, overall vaccine efficacy was 70.4% with no serious safety concerns reported.(28) In a subgroup of 8,895 participants who received two standard doses (as will be administered in practice), vaccine efficacy was 62%. Experience with viral vectored vaccines is limited with no evidence in haematology patients.
An alternative vaccine available internationally is the Moderna mRNA SARS-CoV-2 vaccine (mRNA-1273) which is another two dose regimen vaccine administered 28 days apart, shown in a phase 3 study to have an overall efficacy of 94%.(29) Other vaccines with potential future relevance in Australia and New Zealand include the Novovax vaccine NVX-CoV2373, the Janssen vaccine Ad26Cov2S and access to the COVAX facility.
None of these studies included immunocompromised patients, and we await studies to evaluate these vaccines specifically in haematology patients. Despite the lack of data, none of these are live vaccines and therefore pose no risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Acknowledging the paucity of prospective data, representative experts from the Haematology Society of Australia and New Zealand, have collaborated with Infectious disease specialists on this consensus position statement regarding COVID-19 vaccination in haematology patients in Australia and New Zealand. Broadly we consider that the following applies to all haematology patients:
4. Vaccination should be timed with the aim of achieving optimal protection at the earliest opportunity without compromising disease treatment outcomes. Where possible, vaccination should be completed at least two weeks before immunosuppressive treatment (31).
Patients with bleeding disorders, those receiving antiplatelet or anticoagulant therapy and those with thrombocytopenia may have an increased risk of bleeding at the injection site given the intramuscular route of administration (40).
Both viral infections, and immunisations against viruses have been implicated as potential “triggers” of immune thrombocytopenia (ITP)(41, 42). But immunisation induced ITP is very rare, and for most ITP patients the benefits of avoiding COVID-19 infection far outweigh the risks of disease flare from vaccination. Although treatments for ITP such as high dose steroids and anti-CD20 monoclonal antibodies may impair humoral responses to immunisation, no data exist specifically for this cohort. It is recommended that vaccination of ITP patients should be done in consultation with and under the supervision of a haematologist.
Splenectomised patients should be encouraged to stay on antibiotic prophylaxis as per standard recommendations. However, consideration must be given to the indication for splenectomy including haematological malignancies, sickle cell disease and thalassemia which are associated with increased mortality with COVID-19.
Some patients with these lymphoproliferative disorders may not necessarily require immediate chemotherapy or immunotherapy. However, significant delay in interventions in an attempt to achieve a potential increased immunological response is not recommended. This should be based on clinical discretion considering the risks and benefits to the patient (35).
Given the acute and urgent nature of a diagnosis of acute leukaemia, vaccination should not delay definitive therapy. For patients in remission, vaccination should be facilitated as soon as possible with consideration for thrombocytopenia and the associated risk of bleeding.
There are case reports of aplastic anaemia (AA) post-vaccination, and of recovered AA patients relapsing post vaccination.(43, 44) Conversely, it is likely that viral insults are a key trigger in the pathogenesis of many cases of AA.(45, 46)
Recent immunosupressive treatment in the setting of AA (typically anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) and cyclosporin) is likely to markedly impair host immune response to vaccination. However, patients on maintenance cyclosporin more than six months post ATG and/or allogeneic haematopoetic stem cell transplantation do demonstrate responses to other routine vaccinations.(47)
The risk of COVID-19 infection still favours vaccination in AA, particularly those with additional risks for severe COVID-19 disease.(48)
Refer to the ANZTCT position statement available for guidance.
These statements will be regularly reviewed and updated as appropriate as further data on vaccines emerge hsanz web page
Authors: Cited in full document
The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
Myeloma Scientific & Advisory Group (MSAG)
The Australasian Lymphoma Alliance (ALA)
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia Australian Research Consortium (CLLARC)
© 2023 Haematology Society of Australia & New Zealand All Rights Reserved.