Although it is obvious that the efficacy of the vaccine depends largely on factors related to the vaccine, the number of doses and the interval between doses, behavioral and psychosocial characteristics of vaccine recipients are also important. In fact, there is a well-established literature on the influence of psychosocial factors on immunity and, more specifically, the antibody response to vaccination.
Although factors such as social cohesion and ‘being together’ have been shown to be relevant to vaccine acceptance, these factors also potentially have an important influence on the COVID-19 vaccine antibody response.
Now, a groundbreaking new study from Ireland’s University of Limerick (UL) has confirmed that loneliness and social stress can negatively affect the antibody response to COVID-19 infection.
Social cohesion is the degree of social connection and solidarity between different groups in society, and when it was lacking, it was found to be an additional factor in reducing responses to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Professor Stephen Gallagher, lead author and director of the Anxiety, Stress, and Health Laboratory study at UL, noted that “It has been known for some time that psychosocial stressors can have a damaging effect on immunity. There is also evidence that it can affect antibody responses after vaccination,” so the team felt it made sense to explore this in relation to COVID-19 inoculations.
The authors found that lower social cohesion predicted a lower response to a single injection of the vaccine. Participants who felt less connected to their neighborhood, unsupported, and less trusting of their neighbors produced fewer antibodies than those who reported higher levels of social cohesion. This is key since the more antibodies a person produces, the higher the level of protection against hospitalization and death from the disease.
“Public and neighborhood trust, social cohesion and loneliness have come to the fore during the pandemic,” explained Orla Muldoon, a co-author who had been a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
In the first weeks and months of the pandemic, there was a sense that “we are all in this together”, a mantra that was frequently used during lockdowns in an attempt to foster feelings of social cohesion. “The sense of community and togetherness was evident early in the pandemic when we saw Dubliners playing bingo on the flats, the “clap for carers” [aplausos para los trabajadores de la salud] of Great Britain and the Italians singing from the balconies –Muldoon pointed out. These feelings of social cohesion and trust were short-lived; something British researchers now call the ‘Dominic Cummings effect’. Similar declining levels of trust were also seen in the US during these periods.” Cummings has been chief adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the pandemic.
“Along with this,” Muldoon continues,lockdowns brought social risks such as less social interaction and increased risk of loneliness. In addition to the findings of this study showing their role in antibody responses, trust and cohesion have also been shown to drive adherence to public health guidelines and vaccine uptake.”
The study, which has been published in the prestigious journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, highlights the importance of public trust and social cohesion for the success of our response to the pandemic. For their work, the researchers examined data from more than 600 people who participated in Britain’s Understanding Society Covid-19 antibody study that was conducted in March 2021. “We show that the efficacy of the response to the vaccine is influenced by the psychosocial experiences of the recipient,” Muldoon concluded.