Frontline virus fighters to trial TB vaccine
Thousands of Australian doctors, nurses and health workers will be given a tuberculosis vaccine in a trial that, if successful, could see it made widely available within three months to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The BCG vaccine, given annually to 130 million children, has been found to boost immunity to viral respiratory tract infections, a key symptom of the coronavirus, making it a potential weapon to slow the spread of the virus.
For the next six months, the vaccine will be administered to 4000 health workers in Australia and thousands more in The Netherlands, Germany and Britain to determine its effect on COVID-19.
The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne is running the trial under Nigel Curtis, head of the Infectious Diseases Research Group, who said the trial could be widened if there were obvious results after just three months. Professor Curtis said the BCG vaccination had remarkable properties, including boosting frontline immunity, and those administered the vaccine presented with fewer viral respiratory tract infections, a key symptom of the coronavirus. “We’re using this vaccine really for its effect on the immune system,” he said.
Professor Curtis said repurposing the old vaccine was “very exciting” and the trial would monitor the development of COVID-19 among the healthcare workers, and its severity.
In the trial, half the workers will receive the vaccine. Professor Curtis said the participants’ medical conditions would not play a role.
While the same vaccine would be used overseas, Professor Curtis said the Australian study was longer and would have more precision, as well as timing with the winter flu season.
“I think the disease may be
different because we’re seeing winter influenza,” he said.
A broader distribution of the vaccine as a treatment for COVID-19 may not come in time for Australia’s peak but Professor Curtis said the results of the trial may be in time to affect the spread of the virus in Africa.
“All of this will work or otherwise we wouldn’t be putting time into it,” he said. “But the only way to find out is (through a) trial.”
Professor Curtis said the vaccine was produced by the World Health Organisation worldwide and was readily available. “At the moment there’s enough for intended use,” he said. “(But) if it’s found to be useful, we could ramp up production and make more available.”
MCRI director Kathryn North said the BRACE trial may help save the lives of frontline healthcare workers. “Using rapidly sourced and immediately deployable funds, we will be relentless in our pursuit of preventions and treatments for this unprecedented pandemic,” Professor North said. “These trials will allow rapid advancement of the most promising candidates to clinical practice, giving us the most number of shots on goal against COVID-19 as possible.”
Professor Curtis said the search for a vaccine for COVID-19 would continue regardless of the success of the trial as there were other similar viruses.
“It’s very important that efforts are made to create a vaccination for this virus,” he said.
“We’re always just a few weeks away from a pandemic.”
The BRACE trial builds on previous studies that showed that BCG reduced the level of virus when people were infected with similar viruses to COVID-19.