Could vaccines against tuberculosis (TB) also help protect against the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2?
While the long-existing TB BCG vaccine does not directly protect against this coronavirus, it provides a boost to the immune system, and has been shown to provide some protection against respiratory infections such as influenza in previous studies, which may lead to improved protection against developing Covid-19 and a milder infection.
That is what scientists in a number of countries now hope as they begin to roll out trials to assess the impact of TB vaccines in those most vulnerable to Covid-19 – the elderly and healthcare workers.
In The Netherlands, universities Radboudumc and UMC Utrecht will investigate whether healthcare workers are better protected against the coronavirus by being given the BCG vaccine.
Mihai Netea, Professor of experimental internal medicine at Radboudumc, commented: “If during this epidemic fewer people in the BCG-vaccinated group would drop out due to illness, this would be an encouraging result.”
Marc Bonten, Professor of molecular epidemiology of infectious diseases at UMC Utrecht, who initiated this research together with Prof Netea, said a total of 1,000 employees will participate at Radboudumc, UMC Utrecht and other hospitals. “Half of them will receive the BCG vaccine, the other half a placebo. If it turns out that the vaccine does indeed provide extra protection, we can also offer it to other employees,” he explained.#
In a separate phase III study, researchers want to investigate whether the vaccine candidate VPM1002, originally developed against tuberculosis by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Germany, is also effective against infection with SARS-CoV-2. The large-scale study is to be carried out at several hospitals in Germany and will include both older people and healthcare workers.
While VPM1002 is based on the BCG vaccine, clinical trials to date have found it is more effective: In 2018, a phase II study confirmed that VPM1002 is well tolerated by newborns and is effective and it is currently being tested in a further phase III study on adult volunteers in India.
The higher safety profile of VPM1002 and the improved effectiveness give reason to hope that the new vaccine will also be better able to alleviate the symptoms of an infection with the SARS co-virus 2 than the BCG vaccine, said researchers. “In addition, VPM1002 can be manufactured using state-of-the-art manufacturing methods which would make millions of doses available in a very short time”, said Adar C. Poonawalla, CEO and Executive Director, Serum Institute of India.
If these trials prove successful, TB vaccines could provide some protection until a vaccine specifically effective against SARS-CoV-2 is available, which could take between 12-to-18 months.
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