Could this century-old vaccine be the answer to Covid-19 pandemic?

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Vaccination. (PHOTO: Getty Images)
Vaccination. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

With the death toll rising and no end in sight to the global coronavirus lockdown, it seems several dark weeks lie ahead.

But a new intervention may offer a chink of light.

Researchers are testing a century-old tuberculosis vaccine to see if it can boost the immune system to help fight off the novel coronavirus now causing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Clinical trials of the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine developed in the early 1920s are planned in Europe and Australia to examine its potential for reducing the prevalence and severity of Covid-19 symptoms.

In Melbourne hospital staff who volunteered to be part of a six-month trial involving 4 000 health-care workers will be randomly selected for vaccination.

A team in the Netherlands kicked off the first trials earlier this month, reports Science Mag, and will recruit 1 000 health-care workers in eight Dutch hospitals who will receive either the BCG vaccine or a placebo.

BCG will be assessed for its ability to mitigate the prevalence and severity of Covid-19 symptoms.

With immunisation specifically targeted at the disease at least 18 months away, the World Health Organisation says it’s important to know whether the BCG vaccine can reduce disease in those infected with the coronavirus.

“It can boost the immune system so that it defends better against a whole range of different infections, viruses and bacteria in a lot more generalised way,” says Nigel Curtis, head of infectious diseases research at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Although the vaccine, which is made with a weakened version of the organism that causes TB, may potentially offer protection to a broader group of people, Bloomberg reports that the priority is health workers, who are at higher risk from being infected with coronavirus while caring for sick patients.

“We need to think of every possible way we can protect health-care workers,” Curtis says. “And there’s going to be a particular need to reduce the amount of time that our health-care workers are absent.”

Although many countries around the world have abandoned mass BCG vaccination due to waning tuberculosis diagnoses, South Africa – which has one of the world’s highest TB rates – has stuck by the BCG vaccine.

It’s been used locally since 1973, and since 2001 a single dose of 0,05 ml of BCG has routinely been given at birth to all infants, according to a report by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information.

The vaccine, named after French microbiologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin who developed it, also has other proven off-target health benefits.

It is a common immunotherapy for early-stage bladder cancer and also seems to train the body’s first line of immune defence to better fight infections.

Sources: NCBI, Cancer.org, CNN, TB Facts, Science Mag, Bloomberg

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