Skip to main content

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and your stem cell transplant

Clinical_PeerSupport_SofiaLingard_RB_July 11_108

UPDATED 2 August 2021

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is an understandable concern for all of us and people with a weakened immune system are at a higher risk of experiencing more serious complications from COVID-19.

As the UK government continues to relax its COVID-19 restrictions, we are working with other cancer charities, medical experts, researchers and the NHS to update our advice for people who have received or are waiting to receive a stem cell transplant.

You can contact the Anthony Nolan Patient Services helpline on 0303 303 0303 or patientinfo@anthonynolan.org

Vaccines

Will the COVID-19 vaccines be suitable for me?

Four vaccines - Pfizer’s vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine (aka the Oxford vaccine), the Moderna vaccine and the Janssen single-dose vaccine - have been approved for use in the UK by the Medicines and Health Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The Janssen single-dose vaccine is due to be used in the UK later in 2021. A further Novavax vaccine is awaiting MHRA approval.

None of the approved COVID-19 vaccines are ‘live’ vaccines. This means they all should be suitable for people who have had a stem cell transplant or who are waiting to have a stem cell transplant.

However, the vaccine is more likely to be effective if you have a functioning immune system. This means that patients who have just had their transplant may need to wait a few months before they can be vaccinated:

  • It has been recommended that anyone who has an autologous transplant (auto) receives the vaccine at least two months after their transplant.
  • Anyone who has an allogeneic transplant (allo) is recommended to receive the vaccine 3-6 months after their transplant.

Your individual situation will be assessed in detail by your medical team to make sure you are vaccinated at the most suitable time.

During your transplant your immune system is replaced, so if you received a COVID-19 vaccine before your transplant it is recommended you are vaccinated again after your transplant. Your transplant team will help arrange this. This official recommendation is in the Public Health England guidance for healthcare professionals known as the Green Book. The reference to revaccination after transplant is in Chapter 14 on page 20 here - you may find this link useful when discussing this with your transplant team.

Anyone who is experiencing GvHD (Graft versus Host Disease) after their transplant may have their vaccination temporarily deferred to enable the strongest response from your immune system. This will be assessed on an individual basis for every patient.

After receiving the COVID-19 vaccine it may feel sore where the needle went into your arm, or you may feel tired or sick, have a headache or body aches. These common side effects usually wear off within 48 hours. If you experience any other side effects, or they last longer than 48 hours, we recommend you discuss them with your GP or hospital team. 

The COVID-19 vaccines could cause side effects in a few people with allergies to the components of the vaccine. If you have concerns that your own allergies may affect your reaction to the vaccine you should talk to the medical team about it beforehand. Providing a list of the medications you are currently taking would also be helpful.

Will the vaccines protect me from COVID-19?

The COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the UK have been tested on healthy volunteers of various ages. They were not initially tested in patients with compromised immune systems, such as stem cell transplant recipients. This means we do not yet know for certain how effective they will be.

A great deal of research is taking place into this, and Anthony Nolan is part of Blood Cancer UK’s Vaccine Task Force which is tracking all research in this area.

Early findings from two studies suggest that COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective among patients who are undergoing cancer treatment, and that it may take longer for them to develop immunity.

There is also hope that antibody treatments may be able to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among patients who the vaccines do not work for. We will continue to share findings with you as research develops.

A recent study has suggested that roughly three quarters of stem cell transplant patients can produce detectable antibodies following their vaccine. However, we still don’t know if transplant recipients can make enough antibodies to give suitable protection from COVID-19 symptoms.  

If you are concerned about the level of protection a COVID-19 vaccine has given you, we recommend you discuss this with your healthcare team. They will be able to advise you on further steps you can take to protect yourself.

What are the different types of vaccine? 

The four approved vaccines (from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen) use different approaches to achieve COVID-19 protection. Once injected, these vaccines stimulate our cells to make proteins found only in the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This does not mean we get COVID-19, but it does trigger our immune system to react to the new protein and develop immunity. So, if we then get infected, our body will recognise the virus and be able to destroy it, without us getting ill.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that any one of the vaccines will give a better level of immunity than the others for stem cell transplant patients. All of them should be suitable for you. 

How will the vaccines be given? 

The Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are given as two injections, a number of weeks apart from each other. You will now be offered your 2nd vaccine dose within 8 weeks of your first dose. This period has been reduced to help protect you from emerging COVID-19 variants.

The Janssen vaccine will be given in one injection as a single dose.

The vaccines are being given at specially set up vaccination centres, at hospitals, as well as local GPs and pharmacies. In England the vaccination programme is being co-ordinated by 50 hospital hubs.

Will I be prioritised for a vaccine? 

Any adult who has received a stem cell transplant to treat their blood cancer or blood disorder will be prioritised for a COVID-19 vaccine.

You will be in Priority Group four (for 'clinically extremely vulnerable' patients) if:

  • you are currently being treated for a blood cancer
  • you had a stem cell transplant within the last six months
  • your conditioning therapy is due to begin in two weeks' time or longer 
  • you are taking medication to suppress your immune system, including treatment for graft vs host disease (GvHD), or
  • you have been classed as 'clinically extremely vulnerable' for any other reason.

You will be in Priority Group six (for people with serious underlying health conditions) if:

  • you had a stem cell transplant more than six months ago, or
  • you are over 16 and live with someone who has a weakened immune system in England or Wales, e.g. if they have blood cancer or are undergoing chemotherapy. Further details are here. In Wales household contacts can use this self referral form to request vaccination.

The NHS will contact you to arrange your COVID-19 vaccination. Anyone who is in Priority Group four (for clinically extremely vulnerable patients) can request a COVID-19 vaccination appointment online here.

You will be recommended to have a COVID-19 vaccine after your transplant, along with other post-transplant vaccinations, regardless of whether or not you were vaccinated against COVID-19 before your transplant.

If you feel you, or anyone in your household, have not been appropriately prioritised for a vaccine, your GP or hospital team will be able to address this on your behalf.

You may find the following official statements useful when having your discussion:

Children over the age of 12 who are at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 will be offered the Pfizer vaccine. This includes children diagnosed with blood cancer and children who have had a stem cell transplant. Over 12s will also be offered the vaccine if they live with someone who has a compromised immune system. Specific information regarding how children will be prioritised for the vaccine is regularly updated on the CCLG website.

More information and the complete list of priority groups is available on the BBC website.

Will the timing of my second dose change how effective it is?

The Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are delivered as two injections, a number of weeks apart.

Research is ongoing into whether the timing of your second dose could affect the level of protection from COVID-19. Anthony Nolan is part of Blood Cancer UK’s Vaccine Task Force which is tracking the research in this area.

Early findings from two studies suggest that patients undergoing cancer treatment may be less protected against COVID-19 than other people and it may take longer for them to develop immunity.

While these studies are in their early stages, the Blood Cancer Alliance (of which Anthony Nolan is a member) is urging the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to assess whether a shorter time between doses of the Pfizer vaccine provides better protection for people with blood cancer.

In the meantime we strongly encourage patients to take the COVID-19 vaccine that is offered to them, at the earliest opportunity. After receiving each dose of the vaccine you should continue to follow safety measures to protect yourself during the pandemic - including wearing a face mask, maintaining social distancing and regularly washing your hands.

If you are concerned about the timing of your second dose, we recommend you discuss this with your GP or hospital team. In your discussion you may find it useful to refer to this statement by the BSBMTCT (British Society of Blood & Marrow Transplantation & Cellular Therapy). 

Will my other medications or treatments impact how effective the vaccine is? 

For the vaccine to work effectively, your body needs a functioning immune system so that it can react to the vaccine and provide immunity. Treatments such as systemic steroids and immunosuppressant drugs (such as Ciclosporin and ECP), usually given to prevent or treat Graft versus Host Disease (GvHD), are all designed to suppress your immune system. This means they could potentially reduce your body’s response to the vaccine.

As post-transplant patients continue to receive COVID-19 vaccines, it will be important to understand how well they respond to the different types of vaccine, to inform future recommendations. As soon as we have a better understanding from the experts we work with, we will update this information.

What else can I do to stay protected? 

Even if your current situation suggests you may not have a strong response to the vaccine, it is still important for you to have the vaccine because even some protection is better than none.

After vaccination it can take some time to develop an immune response to COVID-19, and the level of protection for stem cell transplant recipients is not yet fully understood. So when you have had your vaccine, you should still remain careful and maintain the measures you have been following to protect yourself during the pandemic. This includes wearing a face mask, maintaining social distancing and regularly washing your hands.

This is particularly important if you live in an area where COVID-19 cases are high.

Shielding

Should I still be shielding?

As an adult you are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus (COVID-19) if you:

  • are currently being treated for a blood cancer or blood disorder
  • had a stem cell transplant within the last six months
  • are taking medication to suppress your immune system, including treatment for graft vs host disease (GvHD).

If your child had a stem cell transplant, their medical team will advise you whether they are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus. Further guidance for parents is available here.

If you fall into this 'clinically extremely vulnerable' (CEV) category, you were previously advised to follow rigorous ‘shielding’ measures to keep yourself safe from COVID-19. Shielding advice included:

  • staying at home
  • limiting those who visit your home to people providing essential support
  • ensuring all visitors wash their hands regularly
  • maintaining safe distancing measures whenever possible.

After talking to transplant centre consultants we recommend that, now shielding has ended, you discuss your situation with your medical team before making any changes to the precautions you follow. Your medical team has the fullest understanding of your own medical history and the potential impact COVID-19 could have on your health.

Each government has published extra advice for anyone clinically extremely vulnerable in:

Summaries of the remaining restrictions for each home nation are available in this BBC News website article.

A number of other changes have also taken place now shielding has ended:

  • CEV children are advised to return to school.
  • CEV people who cannot work from home are no longer able to access Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Statutory Sick Pay on the basis of needing to shield. You will require a sick note from your doctor to access that support.
  • CEV people who cannot work from home remain eligible for support from the government's furlough scheme until September 2021.
  • Access to supermarket delivery priority slots is still available in Wales.

In response to continuing high levels of COVID-19 in the community, Anthony Nolan is urging the UK governments to continue to support CEV people who were previously asked to shield.

If you have any concerns about returning to work, school or further education, either as a stem cell transplant recipient or as the parent or guardian of a patient, we recommend you discuss the specifics of your situation with your employer or educational support staff. They have a responsibility to ensure you or your child can study safely. Further information can be found in the work section below.

What if I'm not in the high risk group?

Although the legal requirements of social distancing and wearing facemasks has now ended in most parts of the UK it's still important to protect both yourself and people who are clinically extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. We recommend people still wear facemasks in crowded indoor spaces, including public transport, and maintain safe social distancing where possible. 

Public Health England has published guidance on how households can cope with a possible coronavirus infection. We advise you follow this guidance no matter where you live in the UK.

Keep in touch with your medical team too as they may want to change the way they offer their follow-up appointments. This will be to limit the number of times you have to physically attend the hospital and so you can minimise your travel, particularly on public transport.

If you have any specific questions about how coronavirus could affect your own situation, please contact someone from your medical team. They will be happy to talk to you about any concerns you may have.

What further steps should I be taking?

To help prevent the spread of coronavirus, to protect yourself and others, everyone is advised to:

  • Regularly wash your hands thoroughly (for 20 seconds) with soap and water.
  • Wash your hands when you get home or arrive at work.
  • Wear a face covering in shops and other public indoor spaces as well as on public transport.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
  • Put used tissues in the bin straight away and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are unwell.
  • Avoid touching your face if your hands aren’t clean.

If you think you have developed any symptoms of coronavirus such as a new, continuous cough or fever, seek clinical advice using the NHS 111 online coronavirus service or call NHS 111. Do this as soon as you get symptoms.

Restrictions

What are the current restrictions where I live?

Across the UK shops, gyms, pubs, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, barbers and swimming pools have now reopened.

Each of the UK’s devolved nations currently has its own set of restrictions in place. These are summarised below and in this BBC News website article. These restrictions have been lifted in stages, subject to various factors including case numbers and the emergence of COVID-19 variants:

  • England – There's no limit on the number of people you can meet, either indoors or outdoors, and all hospitality venues have reopened. Social distancing and wearing a face mask is no longer a legal requirement but some shops and travel operators still require a mask to be worn. We recommended that face coverings are still worn when in crowded indoor areas, such as shops and when on public transport, to reduce the spread of the virus. We also recommend that you discuss your situation with your own medical team before making any changes to the precautions you follow. Current restrictions are outlined here plus extra precautions in areas where the Delta variant is spreading are explained here.

    The government has published further guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable people in England here. This recommends socialising outside, continuing to practice social distancing 'if that feels right for you and your friends', and asking friends and family to take a lateral flow test before visiting you, among other recommendations.
  • Wales – Up to six people from six households can meet indoors and there is no limit on how many people can mix in outdoor public places or events. Wales is currently at Alert Level one but depending on COVID-19 case numbers, the Welsh government plans to remove most legal restrictions from 7th August, known as alert level zero. There will be no legal limit on how many people can meet – but it will still be a legal requirement to wear face coverings indoors in most public places except pubs, cafes and restaurants.
  • Scotland – Scotland uses a system of five COVID-19 protection levels, which are explained here by area. Scotland is now at Level 0 – this means many restrictions are lifted but it there is still a legal requirement to wear face coverings indoors in public places. Up to 15 people can meet outdoors, up to 10 people can meet indoors in public places and up to 8 people can meet in private homes. Scotland aims to lift all restrictions by 9th August.
  • Northern Ireland – Up to 10 people from three households can meet in private homes and overnight stays are allowed. Up to 15 people from any number of households can meet outdoors. Current restrictions are outlined here.

If you are a stem cell transplant recipient and you have any concerns about your child returning to school, we recommend you discuss this with their school. They have a responsibility to ensure your child can study safely and that you are not put at risk by their return to school.

If you have any other concerns, please contact your medical team who will be able to advise on the most suitable course of action for you.

My treatment

How will my treatment be affected?

Your transplant team are likely to change how they manage your medical appointments. Some consultations will be carried out either over the phone or by video. This will limit the amount of face-to-face contact needed and reduce your need to travel on public transport.

If you do need to attend in person, steps will be put in place to reduce the time spent in waiting rooms. Everyone will be asked to attend appointments without family members or carers if possible.

Where possible you should also try to avoid picking up your prescriptions in person. This can be done by ordering through online home delivery services, asking for help from family and friends or NHS volunteer services.

Will my stem cell transplant still go ahead?

The stem cell transplant process significantly weakens the immune system, making patients more vulnerable to contracting infections including coronavirus. During the first peak of the coronavirus outbreak, some stem cell transplants were delayed to help protect patients and enable vital NHS resources to be directed to where they were most needed. Most autologous transplants and allogeneic transplants where the situation was deemed non-urgent were affected.

Despite the current level of COVID-19 infections, hospitals are currently able to cope with the demands of treating patients. Some non-essential treatments have been temporarily suspended but this is not currently affecting stem cell transplants. We keep in regular contact with all the UK’s transplant centres and continuously monitor the situation.

At Anthony Nolan, we are working closely with every transplant centre in the UK and our suppliers to minimise the disruption coronavirus may cause. This includes any potential disruption as countries restrict travel to and from the UK to limit the spread of the new coronavirus variant.

Where possible, we are searching for multiple potential stem cell donors, including those from umbilical cord stem cells, and making sure we can still import donated cells from across the world. This will allow us to continue our life-saving work.

If you have any specific concerns, please contact your transplant centre. They will be in the best position to advise based on your medical condition, where your stem cells are coming from and the impact of coronavirus on local hospitals.

More information about coronavirus and how to reduce the risk of infection is available from the NHS website.

Work

Can I return to work?

It is your employer’s responsibility to make sure you can work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you cannot work from home, talk to your employer to ensure suitable measures have been taken to protect you from COVID-19 at your workplace. If you have a union representative, they will be able to raise any concerns on your behalf.

Anthony Nolan has joined a group of charities calling on employers to put protective measures in place for staff vulnerable to COVID-19. These #SafeAtWork measures are explained in a letter which you can share with your employer.

  • UK government guidance on working safely during the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.
  • In Wales if you have been asked self-isolate via the NHS COVID-19 app and you cannot work from home, you may be eligible for a £500 payment. Further details are here.
  • The Scottish Government has developed this workplace risk assessment tool.
  • More information on how coronavirus could impact your work is available on the ACAS website. 

If you are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable and you cannot work from home, you may be eligible for support from the government's furlough scheme until September 2021. We recommend you discuss this with your employer.

If you are unable to work, you may also be eligible for:

Note: since 1 April anyone clinically extremely vulnerable who cannot work from home will require a sick note from your doctor to be eligible for SSP or ESA.

Citizens Advice and turn2us have further information on benefits you may be entitled to.

Our Going back to work after your stem cell transplant and Work & stem cell transplant: Information for Employersguides for patients and employers provide further information to make sure you get the support you are entitled to.

If you have any concerns about any of this, your medical team will be able to advise on the most suitable course of action for you. 

Support

What government support is available?

  • In England the support available is listed here or call 0800 0288327, the Government’s dedicated helpline.
  • In Wales the support available is listed here. If you have been asked to self-isolate via the NHS COVID-19 app and you cannot work from home, you may be eligible for a £500 payment. Further details are here.
  • In Scotland you can call the free national helpline number on 0800 111 4000. Further support is listed here.
  • In Northern Ireland you can call the free COVID-19 Community Helpline on 0808 802 0020 and details of support for vulnerable people can be found here. You can also register for help or support from community groups and volunteers in Northern Ireland here.

Where can I get extra help?


Information first published: 11/03/2020
Last update: 02/08/2021
Reviewed: 02/08/2021

Related links

Dealing with infections

Support for parents, families and friends

Get support from us

Patients and families forum