Public Health England accused of misleading cancer patients over Covid vaccine

Public Health England accused of misleading cancer patients over Covid vaccine
‘Dangerous’ to claim vaccines offer ‘high levels’ of protection for immunocompromised people, charity says

Public Health England (PHE) has been accused by a cancer charity of making “misleading” claims about the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines for some people with weakened immune systems.

Blood Cancer UK’s chief executive, Gemma Peters, said she was “deeply concerned” with a PHE statement published this week that made “generalised conclusions” about the levels of protection at-risk groups can expect after receiving jabs.

A PHE press statement published on Friday said the vaccines offered “high levels” of protection for most people with underlying health conditions. It cited study data from more than one million people in at-risk groups that showed overall vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease was around 60 per cent after one dose of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer jabs.

It added: “For those who are immunosuppressed, vaccine effectiveness after a second dose was 74 per cent, with similar protection to those who are not in a risk group. This is a rise from 4 per cent after a first dose.”

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at PHE, said the figures showed “most people who are clinically vulnerable to Covid-19 still receive high levels of protection after two doses of vaccine”.

But Blood Cancer UK said these claims were “misleading” because of uncertainty about vaccine efficacy in some immunocompromised people.

Gemma Peters, chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, said: “We are deeply concerned by how Public Health England has presented this study, and we have contacted them to ask them to retract their press release about it

“The study states that vaccine response is lower in the immunocompromised, and there are too few immunocompromised people to draw confident conclusions. Also, there are a wide range of health conditions that weaken people’s immune systems, and it is unhelpful to make generalised conclusions.

“Our advice to people with blood cancer remains the same. While there is a lot of uncertainty, there is enough reason to think the vaccines may not work as well for some people with blood cancer to continue to be cautious even after having both doses.”

PHE later amended its statements about the study, adding a line which said: “Within these clinical risk groups, there will be people with more severe forms of illness – particularly in the immunosuppressed group – who may not respond as well to the vaccines, and we recommend they seek advice from their specialists.”

Blood Cancer UK welcomed the clarification but said the overall release remained misleading and said it was “vital” that PHE “publicly acknowledges its error and writes to every journalist who has covered the story”.

The charity warned people with weakened immune systems will be left unsafe after the government abolishes mask requirements and other Covid restrictions on 19 July.

Similar warnings have been made by the MS Society, who has said evidence was emerging that those with suppressed immune systems, including many living with multiple sclerosis, were not as well protected after taking the vaccine.

There is also uncertainty about the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines on organ transplant recipients who take immunosuppressant drugs.