Front­line virus fight­ers to trial TB vaccine

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - TESSA AK­ER­MAN

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.

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