The world may not have to wait 12 to 18 months for a Covid-19 vaccine — scientists hope a TB shot can be adapted to fight it much more quickly. But the research so far is based on statistics, and clinical trials are still needed.
Exciting new findings suggest that the cure for the coronavirus may have been under our noses all this time. Evidence is emerging that the commonly used BCG vaccine appears to be protective against Covid-19.
Bacillus Calmette–Guérin, or BCG vaccine, is commonly used to inoculate against tuberculosis (TB). It works by delivering a boost to the immune system cells in the bone marrow, which are then released and respond to all sorts of pathogens. That helps to protect against TB, but also a host of other diseases. It is used to treat measles, malaria, bladder cancer, and it also decreases respiratory infections in older people. This general protective effect of BCG prompted the scientists to investigate whether it might work for Covid-19 as well.
And in a preprint paper that has been submitted for publication to major scientific journals, but is available for download here, scientists have found ‘’striking’’ evidence suggesting that the BCG could be co-opted for use against Covid-19. Whether a country has a BCG vaccination programme or not appears to correlate with how many Covid-19 cases they have.
Nothing seems to work
Different countries have taken drastically different approaches to the coronavirus pandemic. But there appears to be no discernable pattern across countries depending on the measures they have taken to control the virus. From Big Data-enabled lockdowns in East Asia to a laissez-faire policy in Sweden, the infected and mortality figures do not seem to correlate with the measures at all.
But at last one correlation has emerged: countries with BCG vaccination programmes are having fewer cases than those without. In this study, 178 countries were included, of which 131 have national programmes of BCG vaccination, 21 do not, and 26 have an unknown status. Interestingly, the USA and Italy are among the rich, developed countries to have never had a universal BCG programme. Spain also does not have one, but their Iberian neighbours Portugal do, and they had only 209 deaths at the time of writing. The UK ran a modest vaccination programme that ended in 2005.
From data gathered over 15 days of the current pandemic, incidence of Covid-19 was 38.4/million in countries with BCG vaccination compared to 358.4/million in countries without. The mortality rate was 4.28/million in countries with BCG programs compared to 40/million in countries without such a program.
Therefore, there are roughly 10 times fewer cases and deaths in countries with BCG vaccination. One of the paper’s co-authors, Dr Ashish Kamat, said that “While we expected to see a protective effect of BCG, the magnitude of the difference (almost 10 fold) in incidence and mortality (of Covid-19) between countries with and without a BCG vaccination program was pleasantly surprising.’’
Other possible factors need checking
This study being about a correlation, of course the ‘’not causation’’ business must be mentioned. There are a host of qualifiers and caveats to the study, which basically amount to the possibility that factors other than the BCG status are affecting the figures for cases and deaths from Covid-19 coming out of those countries. Then again, they may not be.
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Vaccine development is possibly the most cautious of all scientific endeavours, which is why rolling out a new one for this coronavirus will take at least a year, and probably longer. Patients who are given the vaccine as a trial must be monitored for at least six months to check for any potential side effects, and then follow further months of data analysis and bureaucratic procedures.
Adjusting an existing vaccine, however, could happen much faster, perhaps in half the time. Professor Robert Gallo of the Institute of Human Virology in Maryland says that he and his team will shortly make a major announcement, which is likely to involve an adjusted existing vaccine being computed for coronavirus.
Meanwhile, at least seven clinical trials have been launched for BCG as a treatment for Covid-19, including ones in Australia and the Netherlands. Hopefully there is more to this study than just correlation. If there is, we might get out of this lockdown sooner rather than later.
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