The Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine was routinely given to newborn babies in Australia up until the 1980s, but a drop in tuberculosis cases in the western world prompted a decision to phase the vaccine out.
Some 40 years later, the coronavirus pandemic has shone a new light on the vaccine, with researchers believing it could have an unintended ability to protect people against other respiratory infections, including COVID-19.
The SA Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) is one of several sites across the world participating in a trial led by Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute to find out whether the BCG vaccine could protect frontline healthcare workers from the worst of COVID-19’s symptoms.
Known as the BRACE trial, the study aims to inject participating healthcare workers with the BCG vaccine and others with a placebo or fake vaccine, to determine what unintended impacts the vaccine could have.
About 100 doctors, nurses and clinicians working at the Royal Adelaide and Women’s and Children’s Hospitals are among the 5700 healthcare workers across the world participating in the trial.
SAHMRI researchers are processing blood samples collected from the South Australian participants every three months, with the data later analysed with samples from other participating sites across the globe.
Now at its halfway point in SA, the researcher coordinating the trial at SAHMRI, Flinders University Professor David Lynn, tells InDaily that while results are yet to be analysed, researchers are hopeful the trial will yield positive results.
“It’s definitely been exciting working on this trial,” he says.
“One of the reasons we got involved in this at the time was the potential chaos back in March and April and us wanting to contribute our little bit to come up with solutions for what has been a major challenge to the global population.
“(There is) good evidence to support the hypothesis, but obviously the proof is in the pudding.”
It comes off the back of similar research in Greece that showed vaccinating the elderly with the BCG vaccine protected them against other respiratory infections.
Lynn says there is also “convincing evidence” from low-income countries that injecting babies with BCG reduces their mortality rate.
“That provides reassurance that there is likely to be something to this, although obviously it hasn’t been tested yet for COVID-19,” he says.
“We’re currently blinded – that means we don’t know who has received the BCG vaccine or not and that’s the case across all sites.
“We don’t know who’s been immunised or not and we won’t find out results until the study is unblinded.”
Researchers are waiting until a sufficient number of healthcare workers participating in the trial have been diagnosed with severe COVID-19 from coming in contact with infected patients to conduct an interim data analysis.
“Those initial answers as to whether BCG provides protection against COVID-19 or other respiratory infections, that should be known at an interim level in the next few months,” Lynn says.
“Once that interim analysis has been undertaken, the data will be published and then a full analysis will be conducted when participants at all sites are 12-months post-vaccination.”
Lynn says SA is contributing “disproportionately” to the understanding of the immunology behind how the BCG vaccine works, with SAHMRI one of few sites across the world that is analysing the blood samples in-house.
He says while the state’s comparatively low rate of coronavirus infection has meant that data collected here might not be as useful for analysing BCG’s effect on COVID-19, it could point to other unintended vaccine impacts.
“The trial, although it’s primarily about assessing the effects on COVID-19, will also investigate whether BCG vaccination can protect against other viral infections,” he says.
“With the speedier than expected development of COVID-specific vaccines the question is, do we need something like BCG that might provide some level of non-specific protection? But, the study would have highly significant implications for future pandemics.
“It may be that there are additional benefits to BCG that really haven’t been fully appreciated.”
The BRACE trial is funded in SA by $200,000 from SA Health, SAHMRI funding and corporate donations.
In May, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a $10 million grant to researchers working on the trial, to more than double its reach to healthcare workers across Australia, Spain, Brazil and The Netherlands.
Lynn says the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a renewed interest from the public, governments and corporate sector about the importance of medical research.
“I think it’s (the coronavirus pandemic) woken up the public to the importance of science and medical research to a level that hasn’t been the case,” he says.
“Hopefully that appreciation from the general public of the importance of having scientists and clinicians working on these questions, being poised to respond to new challenges, will encourage governments to invest more in science and medical research in Australia.”
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