RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Ten years after a heart transplant saved his life, a Raleigh grandfather is grateful for another scientific breakthrough — the COVID-19 vaccine.
Rodney Cook is now participating in a study to help doctors learn how the vaccines work in transplant patients.
Cook’s 2011 heart transplant gave him the gifts of health and time.
Without it, “I’ve got two of my five grandchildren I would never have known,” he said. “I’m living a regular normal life. It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”
Of course, the past year hasn’t been normal for anyone. Cook, who takes daily immune suppressants to keep his body from rejecting his transplanted heart, only got to see his grandchildren from a distance.
“It’s hard to see them without hugging them,” he lamented.
When he learned he was eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, he couldn’t wait.
The shots were not initially tested on people who received organ transplants, but researchers at Johns Hopkins are now studying how well they respond.
As part of the study, Cook was tested for coronavirus-fighting antibodies after his first vaccine dose.
“I was real disappointed,” he recalled. He didn’t have any.
According to initial results from the study, which is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, only 17 percent of transplant patients produced antibodies when tested about 20 days after the first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.
Duke infectious disease expert Dr. Cameron Wolfe, who is not involved with the study, said the results were not surprising.
“Their antibody response, on the whole, is much poorer than what you and I might get,” he said, but added that vaccinating transplant recipients is still important.
“It shouldn’t sway people away from getting vaccinated,” said Wolfe. “What it should do is say just because you are vaccinated as a transplant patient, I wouldn’t use that as a signal to throw away the mask or be less cautious, in fact I’d use this as data to try to vaccinate those around someone who’s transplanted.”
He noted that any protection is better than none, and antibodies aren’t the only part of the immune system that responds to a vaccine.
The study is not complete. Researchers are looking at responses to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well, and they are studying what happens after the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Cook says he did produce antibodies when tested 30 days after his second dose.
“I was relieved,” he said.
It’s not clear if other transplant recipients will respond the same way.
Cook said he will continue being cautious and will continue to be part of the study, getting periodic antibody tests.
For now, Cook and his family are happy that he is fully vaccinated and showing antibody response. For a grandfather, who already received the ultimate gift, there is another reason to celebrate.
“I can hug them for the first time in 12 months,” he said. “I am a very grateful human being .”