Understanding multiple myeloma: Why Colin Powell's COVID-19 breakthrough case was fatal

Former Secretary of State and Bloom Energy Board member Colin Powell speaks during a Bloom Energy product launch on February 24, 2010 at the eBay headquarters in San Jose, California.
Former Secretary of State and Bloom Energy Board member Colin Powell speaks during a Bloom Energy product launch on February 24, 2010 at the eBay headquarters in San Jose, California. Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
By , KCBS Radio

Colin Powell's untimely death due to complications from COVID-19 stunned Americans on Monday, but there's more to the headline than a traditional breakthrough case.

Yes, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of state and national security adviser was fully vaccinated for COVID-19, according to his family. But his case is one of many worldwide complicated by existing medical circumstances.

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Powell had undergone treatment "over the past few years" for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer which compromised his immune system, a longtime aide to the 84-year-old told The Associated Press.

He was set to get a booster shot for the COVID-19 last week, but was unable to "because he had fallen ill," as reported by The New York Times.

Multiple myeloma hampers the body's ability to fight infection – and studies have shown that those cancer patients don't get as much protection from the COVID-19 vaccines as healthier people. "I think Colin Powell's death…was a stark reminder that there’s some people, even if you've been vaccinated, if you have other underlying medical conditions or are immunosuppressed the vaccines might not work quite as well," said Dr. David Connor, virologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Connor was a guest on KCBS Radio's "Ask An Expert" on Monday.

"For people that are more high-risk, they're going to probably need to take more precautions because we are in an environment now where there's going to be less mask wearing and less distancing than last winter," Connor said.

Research has repeatedly shown COVID-19 vaccines are likely to be less effective in immunocompromised patients.

 In this handout photo provided by the U.S. National Archives, Secretary of State Colin Powell meets in the President's Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in Washington, DC.
In this handout photo provided by the U.S. National Archives, Secretary of State Colin Powell meets in the President's Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in Washington, DC. Photo credit David Bohrer/U.S. National Archives via Getty Images

"This is where it's really important to recognize that we took acceptable risks even before COVID was something that we ever had to think about," Connor added. "Sadly every year, tens of thousands of people, especially elderly people and those who really weak immune systems, would be under threat every winter from influenza."

Powell's death quickly sparked conversation about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, even drawing comments from conservative lawmakers and pundits. "It wouldn't have been remarkable if Colin Powell had passed away three years ago and it had been influenza," Connor added. "We don't need to panic when we see these sorts of things."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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