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SARS-CoV-2 vaccination in rituximab-treated patients: B cells promote humoral immune responses in the presence of T-cell-mediated immunity


Objectives Evidence suggests that B cell-depleting therapy with rituximab (RTX) affects humoral immune response after vaccination. It remains unclear whether RTX-treated patients can develop a humoral and T-cell-mediated immune response against SARS-CoV-2 after immunisation.

Methods Patients under RTX treatment (n=74) were vaccinated twice with either mRNA-1273 or BNT162b2. Antibodies were quantified using the Elecsys Anti-SARS-CoV-2 S immunoassay against the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein and neutralisation tests. SARS-CoV-2-specific T-cell responses were quantified by IFN-γ enzyme-linked immunosorbent spot assays. Prepandemic healthy individuals (n=5), as well as healthy individuals (n=10) vaccinated with BNT162b2, served as controls.

Results All healthy controls developed antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 RBD of the spike protein, but only 39% of the patients under RTX treatment seroconverted. Antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 RBD significantly correlated with neutralising antibodies (τ=0.74, p<0.001). Patients without detectable CD19+ peripheral B cells (n=36) did not develop specific antibodies, except for one patient. Circulating B cells correlated with the levels of antibodies (τ=0.4, p<0.001). However, even patients with a low number of B cells (<1%) mounted detectable SARS-CoV-2-specific antibody responses. SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells were detected in 58% of the patients, independent of a humoral immune response.

Conclusions The data suggest that vaccination can induce SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies in RTX-treated patients, once peripheral B cells at least partially repopulate. Moreover, SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells that evolved in more than half of the vaccinated patients may exert protective effects independent of humoral immune responses.

  • rituximab
  • vaccination
  • COVID-19

Data availability statement

Data are available upon reasonable request. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information. All data relevant to the study are included in the report. All data are included in the article.

This article is made freely available for use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

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