The COVID-19 pandemic has been widely divisive — but could that divisiveness reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine? A study published in Brain Behavior and Immunity suggests that a lack of social cohesion decreases the antibody response to the coronavirus vaccination.
The coronavirus pandemic has formed deep schisms in today’s society. The topic of COVID-19 became a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, including ones surrounding the efficacy and safety of the vaccines. The relationship between the vaccine’s effectiveness and the social repercussions are more nuanced than one may think.
Past research has shown that many social and behavioral factors can have implications for the efficacy of vaccinations, including social cohesion, stress, and more. This study sought to understand how loneliness and social cohesion affect the immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Stephen Gallagher and colleagues utilized data from 676 adult participants who received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Data was collected in March of 2021 as part of the Understanding Society COVID-19 study based in the United Kingdom. Participants completed measures on social cohesion, loneliness, and demographics, in addition to taking blood samples to test for antibodies. Age and health conditions were controlled for due to their relationships with immune response.
Results showed that social cohesion played a significant role in antibody response, with participants who reported lower social cohesion, especially regarding trust in their neighbors, had lower antibody levels. People with a low level of social cohesion disagree with statements such as “I regularly stop and talk with people in my neighbourhood” and “People around here are willing to help their neighbours.”
Though loneliness itself did not have a significant effect on the immune response, loneliness was shown to be a mediator between social cohesion and antibody level following one dose of the vaccine. These results suggest that community and inclusion can lead to better efficacy of vaccinations for COVID-19.
“In summary, recent research has suggested that the antibody response to the COVID-19 vaccine could be influenced by psychosocial factors,” the researchers wrote. “The present study has confirmed this to be the case. In a population-based study from the UK, we found, for the first time, that people who reported lower social cohesion had poorer antibody response to a single shot of the vaccine and this was also associated with non-neutralizing antibody protections levels.”
This study took significant steps into better understanding the relationship between immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine and social cohesion. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that this study only took into account the immune response following one dose of vaccine, while most of the vaccines required two doses.
Additionally, this study did not differentiate between vaccine types. Another limitation is that social cohesion has been linked to other demographic factors, such as socioeconomic status, and can be greatly affected by different community factors.
“Our findings have clear clinical implications, as the COVID-19 crisis is still ongoing and vaccines are still being administered globally,” the researchers concluded. “We show that the efficacy of vaccine responsiveness is influenced by the recipient’s psychosocial experiences; experiences that are amendable to intervention which may act as behavioral vaccine adjuvants.”
The study, “Social cohesion and loneliness are associated with the antibody response to COVID-19 vaccination“, was authored by Stephen Gallagher, Siobhán Howard, Orla. T. Muldoon, and Anna. C. Whittaker.