COVID-19 vaccination: reasons for earlier boosters

Those who are being treated with TNF alpha blockers for a chronic inflammatory disease probably need a booster vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 earlier than others. A study by the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" indicates this.

Patients with rheumatic diseases or inflammatory diseases of the intestine (Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis) and skin (psoriasis) are often treated with medicinal substances that suppress the immune system. These immunosuppressive treatments can prevent flares of the disease, but may also reduce the success of COVID vaccination. A research team from the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI) in Kiel has investigated whether this is actually the case. The evaluation of short-term vaccination success published in March 2021 revealed that the new mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 are effective and well tolerated for people with chronic inflammatory diseases and undergoing immunosuppressive therapy. In order to gauge the long-term vaccine response, 23 patients undergoing immunosuppressive therapy were re-examined six months after the second vaccination, and compared with a control group of 24 healthy persons. In some of them, antibody levels against SARS-CoV-2 had fallen sharply, as shown in the study published in the rheumatology journal RMD Open.

TNF treatment: faster decrease in antibody levels

"We saw that the 13 patients treated with TNF alpha blockers had significantly lower antibody levels than healthy individuals, while the patients in our cohort who receive other basic treatments do not look significantly different to healthy people, also after six months," reported lead author Bimba F. Hoyer, Professor of Rheumatology at the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University (CAU) and head of the Comprehensive Center for Inflammation Medicine (CCIM) at the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Campus Kiel. This does not necessarily mean that individuals treated with TNF alpha blockers would no longer have protection against infection with the coronavirus. Because it’s not only the antibodies specifically targeted against the virus which protect against infection, but also specialized immune cells. "This cellular vaccine response remains virtually unchanged in patients treated with TNF alpha blockers after six months. Some protection probably remains, but compared to other people, it will be slightly worse," explained Hoyer. "After six months, they certainly need a booster vaccination, but it would probably be a good idea to give them a booster earlier." Whether other immunosuppressive treatments might also affect the protection offered by the vaccine cannot be determined from the relatively small study.

Increased risk of breakthrough infections

The most noticeable difference between the individuals treated with TNF alpha blockers and the other groups was observed in the concentrations of neutralizing antibodies. Neutralizing antibodies bind to a virus particle in a very special way, and prevent the virus from infecting a cell. There is still no threshold value determined for the concentration of neutralizing antibodies which is required for immune protection. "However, initial data from breakthrough infections indicates that decreasing levels of neutralizing antibodies correlate with decreasing protection against SARS-CoV-2," emphasized the rheumatologist from Kiel. The rapid decrease in antibody levels observed in connection with TNF blocker treatment in the Kiel study has yet to be confirmed in larger studies, but should already be considered in the planning of booster vaccinations. And in principle, this problem could also occur with other vaccinations.


Scientific contact:

Prof. Dr. med. Bimba F. Hoyer
Department of Internal Medicine I, Rheumatology, UKSH, Campus Kiel

Original publication:

Geisen UM, Sümbül M, Tran F, … Hoyer FB. Humoral protection to SARS-CoV2 declines faster in patients on TNF alpha blocking therapies. RMD Open (2021).


Vaccination syringe
© pixabay

Symbol picture. Vaccination againt COVID-19.

portrait photo
© J. Hirscher, B. Hoyer

Bimba Hoyer, Professor of Rheumatology at Kiel University, Head of the Comprehensive Center for Inflammation Medicine (CCIM) at the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Campus Kiel, and Steering Committee Member of the Cluster of Excellence PMI.

About the Cluster of Excellence PMI

The Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI) is being funded from 2019 to 2025 through the German Excellence Strategy (ExStra). It succeeds the "Inflammation at Interfaces” Cluster, which was already funded in two periods of the Excellence Initiative (2007-2018). Around 300 members from eight institutions at four locations are involved: Kiel (Kiel University, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Muthesius University of Fine Arts and Design, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN)), Lübeck (University of Lübeck, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH)), Plön (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology) and Borstel (Research Center Borstel - Leibniz Lung Center).

The goal is to translate interdisciplinary research findings on chronic inflammatory diseases of barrier organs to healthcare more intensively, as well as to fulfil previously unsatisfied needs of the patients. Three points are important in the context of successful treatment, and are therefore at the heart of PMI research: the early detection of chronic inflammatory diseases, the prediction of disease progression and complications, and the prediction of individual responses to treatment.

Press contact

Kerstin Nees 431 880-4682

Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation"
Scientific Office
Head: Dr. habil. Susanne Holstein Postal
Christian-Albrechts-Platz 4, 24118 Kiel, Germany
Contact: Sonja Petermann
 +49 (0)431 880-4850, fax: +49 (0)431 880-4894
Twitter: PMI @medinflame