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Infectious Diseases

13 October 2020

Trial launched in SA to test whether MMR vaccine protects healthcare workers against Covid-19

The research team behind the trial are hoping that the vaccine strengthens the immune response to viral infections, including SARS-CoV-2.

  • A trial to test the efficacy on the MMR vaccine against Covid-19 will soon launch in SA
  • Researchers aim to recruit 5 000 frontline healthcare workers in the country
  • The study is part of a larger, global trial involving several other countries in low-and-middle-income countries


Scientists from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Witwatersrand (Wits) are launching a clinical trial to test whether the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) can protect frontline health-care workers from Covid-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, or reduce the severity of illness for infected individuals.

Researchers of the trial are hoping to learn whether the vaccine can elicit an immune response that slows the spread of the virus and protects frontline healthcare workers who work in high-risk settings from developing Covid-19. 

Why the MMR vaccine?

The MMR vaccine was approved almost 50 years ago and has since been safely given safely to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the vaccine is widely used for the immunisation of children in certain regions of the world due to its advantages over individual vaccines.

In a news release by the universities, the research team leading the SA trial point out that growing evidence suggests that the MMR vaccine may be beneficial beyond protecting against measles, mumps and rubella, and could broadly boost an individual’s immunity. In addition, it may also prevent infection from SARS-CoV-2 for a limited period.

“We know that the MMR vaccine is safe and we think there are two main reasons that it could prevent Covid-19,” said Sinead Delany-Moretlwe, one of the trial’s national principal investigators, and a research professor at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI).

“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.”

Another reason it may be effective is that there are similarities between the weakened viruses in the vaccine and the Covid-19 virus. The researchers explain that all of these viruses have similar proteins on their surfaces that are involved in infecting cells in the body, and they therefore hypothesise that antibodies made in response to the MMR vaccine may also recognise and fight SARS-CoV-2.

Trial recruitment

Frontline healthcare workers from low-and-middle income countries including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Uganda, as well as high-income countries such as the US, UK, and Ireland will be recruited for the trial. 

Additional reporting by HealthDay recently explained that the trial is funded by a $9 million (R152 million) grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, Mastercard, and other public and philanthropic donors, and that researchers hope to enroll as many as 30 000 healthcare workers worldwide.

An importance is being placed on protecting healthcare workers as the health system in many of these countries are currently constrained, due to the ongoing pandemic, and if the vaccine is proven to be effective, it could provide a great public health benefit in preserving other important healthcare programmes, among other benefits.

Linda-Gail Bekker, a professor of infectious diseases at UCT and an investigator on the trial added: “South Africa also provides an opportunity for us to show whether this vaccine can protect health care workers living with HIV against Covid-19”.

Healthcare workers can join the trial even if they received the vaccine as children.

Trial participants will be divided randomly into two groups, where one will receive the MMR vaccine, and the other group will receive an inactive placebo.

How long the trial will run

Each participant will be followed for five months, and the trial is expected to last around 12 months.

Previously Covid-19 infected individuals; those who are pregnant; and those who are taking drugs that suppress their immune systems (or are seriously ill) will not be eligible to participate. 

The team hopes to enrol up to 5 000 participants in several sites in Gauteng, the Western Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

Professor Helen Rees, executive director of the RHI, responsible for international governance and coordination on the trial believes that this trial will have important results for the region. Rees also commented:

“If this widely available vaccine turns out to be helpful, it could be a very important tool for protecting healthcare workers, and we need additional tools beyond personal protective equipment and good hand hygiene, which remain vital in fighting the pandemic.”

READ | Could the MMR vaccine help prevent Covid-19? New trial may tell

READ | What we know about vaccine hesitancy in South Africa

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Image: Getty/Samara Heisz