This immunocompromised 27-year-old got 3 vaccine shots. He’s still worried about Delta variant

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski and Rosalie Atkinson

Booster shots are widely available in France and Germany, but in the U.S., regulators are waiting for more clinical trials and data in order to make a decision around boosters. That’s according to Ghady Haidar, M.D. Photo by Shutterstock.

The U.S. is reporting more than 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day — numbers not seen since February when most people couldn’t get vaccinated. As a result, on Monday, seven Bay Area counties reimposed indoor masking requirements, joining LA, Sacramento and Yolo counties. And employers are reevaluating whether back-to-the-office-after-Labor Day plans are realistic anymore.

The spread of the Delta variant is even more nerve-wracking for people with weakened immune systems, who were left out of initial vaccine trials. Because of that, it’s unclear how well the vaccine protects immunocompromised patients. 

One of those immunocompromised patients is Trevor Achilles, a 27-year-old resident of Charlottesville, Virginia. After undergoing a kidney transplant 12 years ago, he’s had to take immunosuppressive drugs to ensure his body doesn’t reject the kidney. 

He says the last 17 months have felt like hell. He was laid off during the early days of the pandemic and often found himself stuck.

“I couldn't really see friends, I couldn't really go to the gym, or do anything else that I used to do before the pandemic. And so it was very taxing on me mentally and physically. I gained a lot of weight. And I was just sitting around, and getting depressed, watching all the horrible news. It was not fun.”

Earlier this year, Achilles was vaccinated. When he was tested for antibodies, it turned out he didn’t have any. Achilles says that’s due to the nature of immunosuppressive drugs — they protect his kidneys but fight off anything else that enters his body. 

“I got the flu before the pandemic began, and I was knocked out flat practically. And when I get sick, I tend to get sicker than most. And so I'm particularly vulnerable to getting something like COVID. And unfortunately, that pertains to the [COVID vaccine] shots as well, because my body just won't accept any kind of foreign interference.” 

Achilles’ lack of antibodies doesn’t surprise Ghady Haidar, M.D from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He looks at how infectious diseases can affect transplant patients. Most recently, Haidar has focused on how people with cancer, organ transplants, and autoimmune diseases respond to the COVID vaccines.

“Vaccines work by triggering your immune system to respond to something. … When you're taking medicines that work by suppressing the immune system, it just makes sense that vaccines aren't going to work as well,” Haidar tells KCRW. “This isn't unique to just COVID-19. This is true for every single vaccine that's out there.”

Haidar recently led a study examining antibody responses in immunocompromised patients. It found that about 37% of organ transplant recipients produced antibodies. That’s compared to 94% of patients with well-treated HIV and about 80% of patients with blood cancer and autoimmune diseases. 

He says the wide-ranging results are indicative of how certain conditions and their treatments can impact the body. 

“For example: A person getting chemotherapy for cancer, their immune system is not the same as someone getting, let's say, a TNF [tumor necrosis factor] inhibitor for their Crohn’s disease. And it's not the same as someone who just had a lung transplant a month ago. And that's not the same as someone who had a liver transplant 20 years ago.”

At the recommendation of his doctor, Achilles received a third COVID vaccine in hopes that it would help him develop antibodies. 

“[My doctor’s] first goal is to keep me alive and healthy and safe. And she knows all about COVID and how it's impacting those of us who are immunocompromised, and she was really worried about me. And she figured that it'd be better to try to get some protection as opposed to having no protection at all,” Achilles says. “I just felt like it was the right thing to do, the natural thing to do. And I'm just hoping and praying this third shot will give me the antibodies that I need.”

Haidar says other countries, including France and Germany, have started to distribute booster shots. In the U.S. however, vaccine regulators are waiting for more clinical trials and data in order to make a decision.  

In the meantime, Achilles says he’s laying low to protect himself from the new Delta variant. 

He adds, “I may have to start hibernating again, so to speak. I'm just really concerned about the Delta variants because it's much more contagious. … I'm willing to do anything and everything to protect myself and my family.”

Credits

Guests:

  • Trevor Achilles - Charlottesville resident
  • Ghady Haidar - M.D., physician at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; assistant professor in University of Pittsburgh’s Division of Infectious Diseases

Host:

Michell Eloy