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Everything You Need to Know About Autoimmunity, Covid-19 Vaccinations + Boosters

This session featured Dr. Anne Davidson, Professor Molecular Medicine, Feinstein Institutes, Northwell Health, and Dr. Judith James, MD, PhD of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, who covered pressing questions about autoimmune diseases, the COVID-19 vaccines, and booster shots.

Recorded October 2021 at the Autoimmune Community Summit.

Covid-19, Vaccines, and the Immune System

Dr. Anne Davidson is a rheumatologist who opened the panel by introducing Covid-19 and the role of vaccinations.

The immune system protects us from this specific virus, by recognizing it through antibodies and lymphocytes. Specialized white blood cells expand and make antibodies, which prevent initial infection; this process is the basis for monoclonal antibodies or laboratory-produced molecules which mimic the immune system’s attack on cells.

An infection activates the lymphocytes, which assist antibodies to help fight the virus. Covid-19 can induce many of these factors, which in turn makes people very ill. “Each virus has its own particular ability to induce an immune response and to have one that’s long lasting. For example, measles will give you a lifelong response, but viruses belonging to the coronavirus family tend to give more of a short-lived response.”

Dr. Davidson also discussed the difference between two types of vaccines available in the USA: RNA vaccines (such as Pfizer and Moderna) and viral vector vaccines (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson).  She also reviewed the current vaccines, how they have demonstrated their effectiveness, but added that the human immune response to the virus and vaccines decreases over time, which is why boosters are needed.

Autoimmunity, Covid-19, and Research

Dr. Judith James discussed special considerations for Covid-19 and autoimmunity. She noted that “Patients who were otherwise previously healthy, will (when infected with Covid-19) generate some of the things in the bloodstream that look like what we see in our autoimmune disease patients.” This overlap is another reason why patients who have autoimmune diseases have a higher chance of being hospitalized with Covid-19 and seem to have longer-lasting symptoms.

Dr. James emphasized the importance of social distancing, masking, avoiding high-risk transmission activities and places, and shared some recommendations for what to do if you become infected with Covid-19. ‘Even vaccinations in autoimmune disease individuals have demonstrated a good response, depending on the medications someone is on and should be discussed with one’s doctor.’

Dr. Davidson closes with some of the current unknowns, such as how long the boosters will last, confounding factors and complications, especially for people with an autoimmune disease. Dr. James explained that research in autoimmune disease patients with Covid-19 seeks to understand:

  • Who responds and why?
  • Which autoimmune patients have breakthrough infections?
  • Even if you have low antibodies, are other protective immune responses in place to protect you?
  • Are there other things which can be done to help patients (such as holding medications, boosting at certain time points, or if other vaccination types are helpful)?

The study Dr. James is working on is an observational study of Covid-19 vaccine response in patients with autoimmune diseases, which will hopefully help to answer some of these questions.

Learn more about the Summit

We tackled the most pressing topics that impact patients and caregivers living with autoimmune conditions.

COVID-19 Resources

The Autoimmune Association is continually monitoring the COVID-19 situation to provide information and resources for persons living with autoimmune disease.