Hundreds of SA doctors and nurses may soon get a TB vaccine to see if it helps against Covid-19

Business Insider SA
  • Five hundred SA healthcare workers may soon get an anti-TB vaccine (again) as part of a clinical trial to see if it helps fight Covid-19. 
  • A recent preliminary study found that countries with universal BCG vaccinations may be less affected by Covid-19. 
  • Researchers in Cape Town now want to see if revaccinations will further help countries with universal vaccinations fight the virus.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

A clinical trial to administer a tuberculosis (TB) vaccine to 500 South African healthcare workers to see whether it will reduce Covid-19 infections, or the severity of its symptoms, may soon start in South Africa.

Widespread use of the bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine against TB was introduced in South Africa in the 1940s, and since 1973, all babies are supposed to be injected with it.

The BCG is now suddenly centre stage in the fight against Covid-19, after an initial study found a lower mortality rate in countries that have a universal and long-standing BCG vaccination policy.  

A study, which was recently published on the research platform MedRvi and has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that countries without BCG vaccination policies, such as Italy, Netherlands and the United States, appear to be worse affected by Covid-19 than those with universal and long-standing BCG policies. 

There is currently no vaccination against Covid-19, but the study suggests that the BCG vaccination may lessen the severity of the virus. 

Also read: Why South Africans should get the flu vaccine now to help the fight against Covid-19

Researchers in Cape Town now want to investigate whether people in countries with BCG policies, such as South Africa, will benefit from revaccinations. Their study is, however, subject to ethical clearance and approval from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). 

Professor Andreas Diacon from the clinical research organisation Task in Cape Town, who will lead the clinical trial, said there is reason to believe that revaccinations could “remind” the body’s immune system to identify infections.  

This may mean that there may possibly be fewer infections, or - which is currently believed to be more likely - that the infections will be less severe.  

“The data we currently have is all observational and speculative, and the trial is, therefore, an attempt to capture data about the efficacy of BCG re-vaccination in preventing Covid-19 infection and severity,” Diacon told Business Insider South Africa. 

Similar research trials are currently being conducted in Australia and the Netherlands.

The head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Stellenbosch University’s Medicine and Health Sciences faculty, professor Gerhard Walzl, said there is already some data to suggest that BCG protects people against respiratory diseases such as colds and flu. 

This is because BCG appears to activate the immune system to respond more effectively against a range of pathogens or viruses. 

Walzl said a revaccination of BCG could, therefore, strengthen the body to fight against Covid-19, but he stressed that more research is required. 

He warned that South Africa should refrain from vaccinating people outside of trials, and the limited supply of the BCG vaccine should be used on intended recipients such as infants until more research is conducted.

Diacon said they are aiming to give the vaccinations to healthcare workers such as doctors and nurses specifically as they are more likely to be exposed to the virus. 

If it proves successful, the research results will be handed over to the South African government to help inform the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

He said Task is limited to completing the clinical trial with 500 healthcare workers at Tygerberg hospital in Cape Town due to budgetary constraints, but would’ve preferred a larger research pool. 

“We have many organisations reaching out to say that they will be able to assist in completing the research, but we simply do not have the finances to cover their expenses.”

SAHPRA and regional clearance to conduct the clinical trial has, however, been expedited by authorities, Diacon said.  

“It is really encouraging to see the people who often work against you to conduct research are now coming together and offering help.”

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