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Infectious Diseases

Updated 31 March 2020

Could an age-old TB vaccine help in our fight against coronavirus?

Could the BCG tuberculosis vaccine possibly work for coronavirus?

As the new coronavirus pandemic sweeps over the globe, hospitals are bracing themselves for grim repercussions like shortages of supplies, beds and vital protective equipment for their staff.

We know so far that there is no specific treatment or antiviral for Covid-19, nor is there a vaccine for the new coronavirus strain. But experts are trying to win time and take the burden off strained healthcare systems by coming up with the best interim solution – an existing method that's been around for years.

And as reports mentioned that Australian researchers are trialing an existing TB vaccine against Covid-19, experts worldwide are wondering if this might work.

What is the BCG vaccine?

The Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine was developed over a period of 13 years, from 1908 to 1921, hence the nickname “old faithful” in some circles. The vaccine is developed from a weakened strain of Myobacterium bovis, a bacterium similar to M. Tuberculosis, which causes the disease.

This vaccine is administered to babies in areas where the prevalence of tuberculosis is high. It builds up the so-called “frontline” immune system to help fight against M.Tuberculosis without actually causing the disease.

Why are they testing it against Covid-19?

A team of researchers in Australia will fast-track the BCG vaccine in humans to see how Covid-19 symptoms respond. This vaccine was specifically chosen as it boosts the immunity significantly, training it to fight germs with greater intensity, according to a statement.

According to research, the BCG vaccine possesses a unique immune-enhancing effect due to its ability to activate innate immunity, the body’s so-called “first line of defence” against any introducers – not only bacteria, but viruses too.

Researchers are also interested in this vaccine because it has been in use for centuries with minimal side-effects. The most serious side-effect this vaccine may cause, is a keloid scar (a granuloma) at the site of the injection.

What will the trial entail?

Right now, the trial will be conducted in Australia with over 4 000 healthcare workers to see whether the vaccine has an effect on Covid-19 symptoms, according to researchers at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

The so-called BRACE trial will build upon existing research to see whether the vaccine will bring down the level of viruses in people infected with the Covid-19 virus.

Researcher Professor Kathryn North A. C. says, "This trial will allow the vaccine's effectiveness against Covid-19 symptoms to be properly tested and may help save the lives of our heroic frontline healthcare workers."

Experts do however reiterate that this vaccine is not a specific antidote to the virus. If it is proven to work, it will be distributed in large quantities to those at risk, such as the elderly.

A South African context

Should this be a successful intervention in the meantime, a potential shortage in South Africa may be of concern. According to a report in The Lancet Global Health, the global availability and procurement of BCG have been a challenge since 2013.

In the Western Cape alone, where the vaccine is often recommended at birth, shortages were already experienced as early as 2015. But companies have been trying to combat these shortages, according to a previous Health24 report.

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