What the IBD Community Needs to Know about Getting an Additional Dose of the COVID-19 Vaccine

Over the weekend (Saturday, November 6) I received my third dose of the Pfizer vaccine. When I had my second vaccine on August 11, I never dreamed I would be getting another jab so soon. But here we are. In talking with several IBDologists and patients I felt the need to expound on this topic, as misinformation is driving quite a bit of confusion about what additional doses and boosters mean for the IBD community and how we can best sort through all the information being thrown our way.

What’s the difference between an additional dose (3-part vaccine series) vs. a booster?

Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, helped me better understand this by explaining, “a 3rd dose implies that you had a less-than ok response to two doses and need a “3-dose regimen” to get the same response that someone else would get with two doses.”

The 3-dose regimen caters to those who are severely immunocompromised—those on chemotherapy and organ transplant recipients.

“Most IBD patients do NOT have this problem. Some small studies have shown varying responses; the largest is PREVENT-COVID which was over 3,000 patients. The study found that those on monotherapy TNF had similar response to the COVID vaccines as the general population. It was only in the setting of combination therapy (anti-TNF plus azathioprine or methotrexate) that you had a blunted antibody response (again–this was a research study),” said Dr. Bewtra.

She went on to say she has not been recommending that all her patients get a 3rd dose—rather, reserving that for patients who are on combination therapies. At the same time, this is a very fluid discussion, and the decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis between each patient and their physician.

A booster is if you had an adequate response to the first 2 doses and are now 6 months past your primary series and fall into the recommended categories (over 65 years old or age 50+ with high-risk medical conditions), if you are part of a younger age group with high-risk medical conditions, or for those who work in occupations that put them at high risk for COVID. Booster shots are most effective 6 months after your initial series for Pfizer and Moderna and 2+ months after J&J, although the data really supports waiting until at least 6 months for best response. Age is the biggest determinant of needing a booster, whether you have IBD or not.

Dr. Peter Higgins, MD, PhD, M.Sc., University of Michigan Health, explained this clearly on Twitter. He tweeted, “It is a catch-up dose for folks who for various reasons (anti-TNF’s, steroids, chemo) will not have a great response to two doses. To catch-up to everyone else. Then a booster dose later to keep pace.”

I’m *only* 38 years old. I’m *only* on Humira. Why am I getting a 3rd dose two months after my 2nd vaccine?

I saw my gastroenterologist for a check up last week and she ordered a SARS-Cov-Z Antibody (IgG) Spike Semi Quantitative test at Quest Labs. My results came back and from a range of 0-20, I was at 4.42. My GI was surprised my response had dwindled so quickly and recommended I receive a third dose to help mount a more robust response.

Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago, and Chair of the National Scientific Advisory Committee of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation told me that multiple studies on antibody response in patients with IBD have shown that after two doses the titers are similar to that of the general population. So, my result, is an aberrancy compared to the data. He said getting a 3rd dose seems right for me, given my personal results.

“We have suggested the booster for everyone and think of the COVID vaccines as part of a 3-dose series. When it comes to true protection from the infection, memory B cells (cellular immunity) are more important than antibodies. There is not a commercial test for that yet, but we are studying it.”

In a recent talk Dr. Rubin gave about COVID, vaccines, and the updated recommendations for additional doses and boosters, he discussed how IBD is a condition of an abnormal immune response. Therapies to manage IBD are predominately immune-based and immune-modifying. The information shared by the CDC and FDA is not specific to IBD and is confusing (for everyone).

“CDC recommends individuals should get a third vaccine if:

  1. Previously received two doses of an mRNA vaccine
    1. Currently taking select therapies, including anti-TNF and anti-metabolites
    1. “Other biologic agents that are immunosuppressive or immunomodulatory”
    1. High dose steroids (prednisone ≥20 mg/d or equivalent for ≥2 weeks)

All other individuals are recommended to get a booster 6-8 months after second mRNA vaccination.”

But wait, what’s the recommendation on antibody tests? Are they valid?!

This is where I get confused too, folks. Prior to receiving my antibody test and following my doctor’s orders I was not aware that the FDA and CDC both strongly recommend NOT checking or acting on antibody levels, as the tests outside of research studies are unreliable and unvalidated. Antibody tests do not paint a full picture of our immune system.

“There are strong recommendations from the CDC, FDA and ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) that patients NOT check antibodies nor use them in decision making. The only time they should be used is in the setting of research studies,” said Dr. Bewtra.

The reason for this is multifold:

-Antibody tests are not validated.

-Since they are not validated, there is no comparison for values. For example, my 4.42 on one test may be completely different in a different test.

-We know that antibodies are testing only one aspect of the immune system—there is a LOT more to immunity than an antibody level.

Dr. Jami Kinnucan, MD, University of Michigan Health advises all her IBD patients to receive a third dose, or a booster vaccination based on their risk factors and immunosuppression medications.

Dr. Kinnucan says, “Overall the current recommendations are to get a dose #3 on certain immunosuppressive therapy, which is different than a true booster dose. In addition, it is hard right now to understand what the true threshold of immunity is with antibody testing so I would not put too much into antibody test results. I do not recommend that patient’s routinely have their antibody status checked (unless they are involved in current studies). I would recommend getting dose #3 or booster dose for IBD patients.”

Vaccinated diverse people presenting shoulder

During the holidays we should all continue to follow CDC recommendations when it comes to social gatherings, social distancing, wearing masks, and properly washing our hands. Everyone that you spend time with should be fully vaccinated so the only thing being spread is holiday cheer. If you plan to spend time with anyone who is not from your immediate bubble, it’s recommended they take a rapid test before coming over.

Key Reminders as We Head into the Holidays

Vaccines are not 100% protective and Dr. Bewtra says “no one is fully vaccinated.”

“No one should think that just because they’ve had two vaccines, or 3 or 4, that they are safe. Protection is a function of the community: when community levels are high, even if you just got​ your vaccine, you need to wear a mask and practice all the recommendations from the CDC.”

What are the studies saying about the IBD Community

The data from science is highly variable. Studies looking at Rheumatoid Arthritis are not translatable to IBD, even when patients are on the same drugs. We have the real-world data from IBD, and it shows that the vast majority of IBD patients respond to vaccines appropriately. So not everyone needs to rush out to get a 3rd dose.

“We are doing a lot of vaccinating “the worried well” in this country. That may be fine because we are in a rich enough place to do that over and over, but it should not infer a feeling of false protection​ and it may be unnecessary,” said Dr. Bewtra.

Closing Thoughts

On the fence about receiving a 3rd dose and/or a booster dose? Have a discussion with your physician who specializes in caring for your IBD and prescribes your medications. Much like how IBD and COVID manifest differently in each person, it’s not fair to make blanket decisions about the entire patient population.

Dr. Rubin wants to reassure those with IBD that they are not at increased risk of bad COVID outcomes (but not at decreased risk either). He says most patients with IBD on therapy beyond 5-ASA or budesonide are eligible to get a third dose now. For patients on combination therapy with anti-TNF and thiopurine, methotrexate or high dose steroids, it’s reasonable to get the third dose/booster early.

Stay tuned for the evolving research. As the months go by and more research studies are completed, we’ll have a clearer picture of how to tackle this as well as additional guidance.

Save the Date: Facebook Live Event on Global Perspectives on COVID + IBD

The South Asian IBD Alliance (SAIA) is hosting a Facebook Live event Saturday, November 20 at 10 am EST. Patients and physicians will share their perspectives on COVID from the United States, United Kingdom, and India. Doctors will explain study data on serocoversion (development of specific antibodies in blood serum as a result of infection or immunization) in IBD patients and what their thoughts are on boosters and a 3-dose regimen, along with their viewpoints on mixing and matching vaccines. Patients will share their experiences from each respective country and discuss the challenges the pandemic has caused in terms of care.

Additional Resources

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: COVID-19 Vaccine Additional Dose Position Statement 

COVID-19 Vaccines and IBD: What patients need to know (article by Dr. David Rubin)

Third doses of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in immunocompromised patients with inflammatory bowel disease (The Lancet)

Podcast: IBD Drive Time: Does my Patient Need A COVID-19 Vaccine Booster?

Studies about how IBD patients are responding to COVID-19 vaccines:

If you don’t do so already, be sure to follow these experts on Twitter for up to the moment information:

Dr. Bewtra: @DrsMeena

Dr. Rubin: @IBDMD

Dr. Kinnucan: @ibdgijami

Dr. Higgins: @ibddoctor

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