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COVID-19 vaccination and leprosy-A UK hospital-based retrospective cohort study.


Background: Individuals with leprosy are at risk of leprosy reactions, T-cell mediated immunological complications, which lead to nerve function impairment. Leprosy reactions require systemic immunosuppression which is a risk factor for severe COVID-19. Vaccination for SARS-CoV-2 infection is recommended in the UK and became widely available in 2021 with individuals at increased risk of severe disease, including the immunosuppressed, prioritised. Vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 may provoke a T cell response. The latter poses a theoretical risk of provoking an immunological response to latent Mycobacterium leprae infection leading to clinical disease or in those with clinical disease triggering a leprosy reaction. BCG vaccination is associated with the development of leprosy in a small proportion of healthy contacts of people with leprosy within twelve weeks of administration. BCG causes a Th1 immune response.

Methodology/Principal Findings: We performed a retrospective cohort study to determine the SARS-CoV-2 vaccination status of individuals diagnosed with leprosy attending the Leprosy Clinic in 2021 and whether any had developed leprosy or experienced a new leprosy reaction within twelve weeks of receiving a dose of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The electronic patient records were used to retrieve data. Fifty-two individuals with leprosy attended the clinic in 2021 of which five people were newly diagnosed with leprosy. Thirty-seven (71%) were male and the median age was 48.5 years old (Range 27-85 years). Eight (15.4%) individuals were taking multi-drug therapy (MDT) and eight (15.4%) had completed MDT within three years of the study. Twenty-two (41.5%) individuals were prescribed a systemic immunosuppressant drug during 2021. Ten (18.9%) individuals have one or more risk factors for severe COVID-19. The SARS-CoV-2 vaccination status of fifty (96%) were recorded of which forty-nine were vaccinated (98%). One individual had declined vaccination. One individual was diagnosed with borderline tuberculoid (BT) leprosy having developed red skin lesions with reduced sensation (which increased in size and number) and thickened peripheral nerves one week after a second dose of BNT162b2 vaccine. Another individual who had completed MDT more than three years earlier developed red plaques and tender thickened nerves consistent with a leprosy Type 1 reaction eight weeks after a single dose of BNT162b2 vaccine (having received two doses of CoronaVac vaccine three months earlier).

Conclusions/Significance: The development of BT leprosy and a Type 1 reaction in another individual shortly after a dose of BNT162b2 vaccine may be associated with vaccine mediated T cell responses. The benefits of vaccination to reduce the risk of severe COVID-19 outweigh these unwanted events but data from leprosy endemic countries may provide further information about potential adverse effects of augmented T cell responses in individuals with leprosy or latent M. leprae infection.

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Journal Article
De Barros B
Pierce R
Sprenger C
Ong E
Walker S