TB vaccine gives hope for protecting newborns against Covid

The vaccine offers protection against a range of infections, study suggests

Clea Skopeliti
Thursday 18 February 2021 14:04
Comments
<p>Many low-income countries won’t vaccinate their populations for years</p>

Many low-income countries won’t vaccinate their populations for years

The tuberculosis (TB) vaccine may offer newborns protection against a number of additional respiratory infections, a study has suggested, with hopes that it could also guard against Covid-19 infection.

The study monitored 560 newborn babies in Uganda for a variety of illnesses, with one group given the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine at birth and another cohort receiving it at at six weeks of age.

Publishing their findings in Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers found that the vaccine offered protection from common colds, chest infections, skin infections and even diarrhoea. The vaccinated newborns were 25 per cent less likely to have been infected after six weeks than those who had not been.

Researchers said giving newborns the jab on the day of their birth could potentially save thousands of lives each year in places with high infectious disease rates.

Given that the jab offered protection from a range of diseases beyond TB, there are hopes that the vaccine might protect children and adults against Covid-19 and other emerging diseases. Over the course of the pandemic, experts have questioned whether there could be a link between the BCG jab and lower rates of Covid-19 mortality.

Dr Sarah Prentice, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), who is lead author on the study, said: “Since the findings show that BCG seems to offer wider protection against a range of infections, our study also raises hopes it might be useful in protecting the general population against Covid-19 and future pandemics – though we will need to see the results of other, more specific studies to know for sure.”

Vulnerable babies, including low birthweight newborns appeared to benefit the most.

Researchers found that once the babies in the second cohort had been vaccinated at six weeks, there was no difference in infection rates between the two groups, meaning the delayed group’s immunity “caught-up” once they were inoculated.

The team said the reintroduction of BCG vaccinations at birth should be considered in countries were they have been phased out, including in the UK, as they could help shield vulnerable infants in neonatal units against other infections.

Hazel Dockrell, professor of immunology at LSHTM and one of the co-authors of the study, said: “It’s very exciting to think that BCG vaccinations might help keep newborns safe against other dangerous infections, in addition to providing protection against TB.

“Although BCG is recommended at birth in many countries, it is often delayed due to logistical difficulties. Ensuring that the vaccine is given on day one, in areas with high rates of infectious disease, could have a major impact on infections and deaths in the newborn period.”

The link between the TB vaccine and improved coronavirus outcomes has been considered previously, with researchers finding last July that countries with higher rates of BCG vaccinations had lower peak mortality rates from Covid-19.

Researchers investigating the connection between the BCG jab and Covid have said it is not expected to be an ultimate solution, but could help keep fatalities down while vaccines are rolled out.

Many low-income countries are at the back of the vaccine queue, leading campaigners and scientists to warn that the world is on course for a “vaccine apartheid” in which people living in the Global South are inoculated years after those in the West.

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