Herpes zoster following BNT162b2 mRNA COVID-19 vaccination in patients with autoimmune inflammatory rheumatic diseases: a case series

As global vaccination campaigns against COVID-19 disease commence, vaccine safety needs to be closely assessed. The safety profile of mRNA-based vaccines in patients with autoimmune inflammatory rheumatic diseases (AIIRD) is unknown. The objective of this report is to raise awareness of reactivation of herpes zoster (HZ) following the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccination in patients with AIIRD.

The safety of the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccination was assessed in an observational study monitoring post-vaccination adverse effects in patients with AIIRD (n = 491) and controls (n = 99), conducted in two rheumatology departments in Israel.

The prevalence of HZ was 1.2% (n = 6) in patients with AIIRD compared with none in controls. Six female patients aged 49 ± 11 years with stable AIIRD: RA (n = 4), Sjogren’s syndrome (n = 1), and undifferentiated connective disease (n = 1), developed the first in a lifetime event of HZ within a short time after the first vaccine dose in five cases and after the second vaccine dose in one case. In the majority of cases, HZ infection was mild, except a case of HZ ophthalmicus, without corneal involvement, in an RA patient treated with tofacitinib. There were no cases of disseminated HZ disease or postherpetic neuralgia. All but one patient received antiviral treatment with a resolution of HZ-related symptoms up to 6 weeks. Five patients completed the second vaccine dose without other adverse effects.

Epidemiologic studies on the safety of the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines in patients with AIIRD are needed to clarify the association between the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccination and reactivation of zoster.