Man a 'Prisoner' With 7-month COVID Infection Treated With Vaccine in First

Researchers have used a COVID vaccine to treat a patient suffering from the virus, rather than for just preventing infection, for the first time.

The team of U.K.-based clinicians from the Immunodeficiency Centre for Wales and scientists from Cardiff University used two doses of the Pfizer vaccine to treat Ian Lester, a 37-year-old dispensing optician from Pontypridd, Wales, to clear the virus from his body.

Lester, who suffers from a rare genetic immunodeficiency-causing condition called Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome, tested positive for COVID for a period seven-and-a-half months after he caught the virus.

The case is detailed in a case study published in the Journal of Clinical Immunology with researchers saying that the vaccine successfully kick-started Lester's immune system to clear the virus. They hope that the approach can now be used to treat other COVID sufferers with compromised immune systems.

Lester said in a press release from Cardiff University: "They went above and beyond for me. I will be forever thankful to the doctors, nurses, and scientists who helped me."

Because of his comprised immune system, when Lester caught COVID in December 2020 he was unable to fight off the infection and as a result he consistently tested positive for a period of at least 218 days. His infection, which forced him to self-isolate for long periods, was distinct from long-COVID.

Lester said: "My symptoms gradually became worse the longer I had the virus. This included extreme fatigue, lack of sleep, borderline insomnia, headaches, and chest tightness.

"Each positive COVID swab every 10-14 days left me feeling more deflated and anxious. I began to feel like I was a prisoner in my own home and the days blurred into months. By June 2021, when social gatherings were being allowed again, I was feeling very frustrated and started to doubt I would ever become negative."

Because of his condition, Lester said that treatment options were limited and that he never became sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, meaning he couldn't access funding through the U.K.'s National Health Service for anti-virals.

Stephen Jolles, clinical lead at the Immunodeficiency Centre for Wales and Honorary Professor at Cardiff University's School of Medicine, said: "Given the persistent positive PCR tests and impact on his health and mental health, we decided on a unique therapeutic approach.

"We wondered whether therapeutic vaccination could help in finally clearing the virus by inducing a strong immune response within the body."

The team gave Lester two doses of the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine, one month apart, and quickly saw a strong antibody response that they say was much stronger than had been induced by the prolonged natural infection.

Dr. Mark Ponsford, clinician scientist from Cardiff University's School of Medicine, said SARS-CoV-2 clearance was finally confirmed 72 days after the first vaccination dose, and 218 days after it was first detected.

"It was a pretty astonishing moment," he said.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time mRNA vaccination has been used to clear persistent COVID-19 infection. Importantly, the vaccine was well tolerated by the patient and successfully induced a strong antibody and T-cell response. This was remarkable given Ian's response to conventional vaccinations in the past has been extremely limited."

Lester said: "After my first vaccination in May, PCR testing began to suggest my body was finally fighting the virus. This got me very excited, and I dared to imagine normal life again.

"The second vaccination was given to me three and a half weeks later—and eight weeks later I started to get consistent negative COVID results. I was over the moon and beyond relieved to finally be negative and get my life back on track. I was really lucky to have a strong network of family and friends supporting me, which helped keep me sane."

Lester said that he is currently experiencing some symptoms of long-COVID, but describes this as "a small price to pay for freedom."

For the researchers, the aim is to see if the treatment that worked so well for Lester and gave him his life back could work for other people, something that will require further testing.

Ponsford said: "We have all seen how vital vaccination is to the ongoing fight against the global pandemic—but our study is the first to highlight the exciting potential for it to be used as a treatment in persistent infection."

Ian Lester and COVID vaccine
(Left) Ian Lester was treated with a COVID vaccine. (Right) Stock image of COVID vaccine in cold storage. Scientists from Cardiff University used a COVID vaccine to treat rather than prevent a COVID infection. solarseven/Getty/ Cardiff University