SA scientists launch trial to test if childhood vaccine can protect frontline healthcare workers

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Prof. Sinead Delany-Moretlwe Wits RHI
Prof. Sinead Delany-Moretlwe Wits RHI
Supplied: Wits University
  • Scientists from Wits and UCT are launching a clinical trial to test whether the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella can protect frontline healthcare workers.
  • The team hopes to enrol up to 5 000 participants.
  • Each participant will be monitored for five months and the trial is expected to last a year.

Scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town (UCT) are launching a clinical trial to test whether the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) can protect frontline healthcare workers from Covid-19 or reduce the severity of illness if they become infected.

According to the scientists, the MMR vaccine had been given safely to hundreds of millions of people around the world since it was approved nearly 50 years ago and "successfully reduced the incidence of measles, mumps and rubella worldwide".

"We know that the MMR vaccine is safe and we think there are two main reasons that it could prevent Covid-19," Research Professor at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) and one of the trial's national principal investigators, Sinead Delany-Moretlwe, said in a statement on Tuesday.

"Firstly, this type of vaccine, which contains small amounts of very weakened measles, mumps and rubella viruses, appears to strengthen the body's immune response to infections in general, not just to the viruses in that particular vaccine," she added.

According to the research team, the trial points to growing evidence that suggests that the MMR vaccine may have benefits beyond protecting against MMR.

"It could broadly boost an individual's immunity and may prevent infection from SARS-CoV-2 for a limited period because the vaccine carries small amounts of live, weakened viruses that could train the body's immune system to fight multiple pathogens," the statement further read.

READ | Wits announces SA's first Covid-19 vaccine trial, first participants to be enrolled this week

In addition, scientists believed that the MMR vaccine may be effective as there were similarities between the weakened viruses in the vaccine and the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused Covid-19.

Researchers hoped to establish whether the vaccine could elicit an immune response that slowed the spread of the virus and protected frontline healthcare workers who worked in high-risk settings from developing Covid-19.

"If we discover that the MMR vaccine can help train the body's immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection, then we will have something to administer very quickly, while waiting for more specific vaccines and preventive therapies to be developed.

National co-principal investigator and second chair in the Department of Anaesthetics at UCT, Professor Bruce Biccard added:

If the trial shows that the MMR vaccine can boost the body's immune response, we believe it also may enhance the effectiveness of vaccines currently in development to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection.

According to Wits and UCT, the study will recruit frontline healthcare workers from low- and middle-income countries like South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Uganda, as well as high-income countries like the US, UK, and Ireland.

Healthcare workers participating in the trail would be divided randomly into two groups; with one receiving the MMR vaccine, while the other group would receive an inactive placebo.

The team hoped to enroll 5 000 participants from several sites in Gauteng, the Western Cape, Free State and Kwazulu-Natal.

In addition, each participant would be monitored for five months while the trial was expected to last a year.

Healthcare workers should note that those (who were) previously sick with Covid-19; those pregnant and those taking drugs that suppressed their immune systems or were seriously ill, would not be eligible to participate in the trial.

The trial was funded by a $9 million grant from the Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator - an initiative launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome, and Mastercard with support from an array of public and philanthropic donors, including the South African Medical Research Council.

- Compiled by Canny Maphanga

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