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“Lower neighbourhood trust and connection negatively impacts our COVID-19 antibody responses”

A new research lead by SASHlab Director, Professor Stephen Gallagher has found that lower neighbourhood cohesion was associated with antibody response to the COVID-19 vaccine. Lower social cohesion also made people feel lonelier, and this was an additional factor in reducing antibody responses to the vaccine.

This study is a classic case of mind-body medicine, whereby our feelings/emotions generated by interacting with our social worlds can influence our immune systems.

Antibodies are a core component of our adaptive immune system ability in fighting off infections including COVID-19. As we have learned during the current pandemic, COVID-19 vaccines were part of the global strategy to combat COVID-19. Having the vaccine was important at the antibodies produced following a vaccination offered protection against hospitalisation and death. However, when people do not make enough antibodies following a vaccine they are often vulnerable to infection or re-infection, hence why we were encouraged to have boosters shots.

The influence of factors such as stress on our immunity, including antibody response to vaccination, is well-established. Research has found that chronic stress has a negative impact on our immune system, by increasing our vulnerability to infections, increasing levels of inflammation but also lowering our ability to make antibodies following vaccinations. In contrast, better quality social relationships are have been found to boost immunity (e.g., low levels of inflammation) and increase antibody levels following a vaccine. As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, stress was ubiquitous, from managing multiple lockdowns, job losses, increased social restrictions and lower social engagement as wells as issues of misinformation and public trust coming to the fore all creating a sense of social stressors.

Thus, given the negative impact of stress on our immune systems and in particular on lowering antibody response to vaccinations, alongside COVID-19 antibody responses being a critical feature of vaccination success, we wanted to see if social stressors like social cohesion, i.e., lower trust in neighbours, less connections with neighbourhood, and feelings of loneliness had a negatively impacted on our antibody response to those vaccines.

We focused on social cohesion as key predictor of immune responses. For example, during the initial lockdowns a sense of being in it together was an oft used mantra. We had ‘clap for carers’ in the UK, Italians singing from balconies, Dubliners playing bingo in the flats, all of which increased social cohesion and public trust. These feelings of social cohesion and trust were short-lived; something UK researchers now call the ‘Dominic Cummings effect’. Similar diminishing levels of trust were also seen in the US during these periods. Along with this, lockdowns brought social risks such as less social interaction and an increased risk of loneliness.

How did we do this?

Using data from over 600 people who took part in the UK’s Understanding Society COVID-19 antibody study in March 2021.

Participants were sent out a blood sampling kit, and asked to provide a blood sample and had to confirm if they had the COVID-19 vaccine, how many doses, whether they had the infection and they had completed a survey which captured there ratings of social cohesion and loneliness.

The blood samples were then sent to a laboratory for antibody analyses and the data was pooled with the survey data.

What did we find?

We found that participants who reported lower levels of lower social cohesion had a poorer antibody response to the COVID-19 vaccine; those who felt less connected to their neighbourhood, had lower trust in their neighbours, and felt unsupported or less similar to their neighbours made fewer antibodies in comparison to those who reported higher social cohesion. In addition, those who reported lower social cohesion also tended to report that they felt lonelier, and this, in turn, reduced their antibody response.

What does this all mean?

Well, given that the pandemic is still ongoing and vaccination is a core strategy for dealing with COVID-19, this study highlights that external factors such as trust, connections and loneliness, which are not part of our immune system are actually important for it! Moreover, social cohesion and loneliness are malleable and can be harnessed for improving vaccine responsiveness. In addition, these results highlight once again the relevance of public trust and social cohesion to the success of our pandemic response.


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