Radboudumc study: old TB vaccine is safe, stimulates immune system and may also be effective against COVID-19

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It is the dream of both a physician and a politician: an existing vaccine, the safety of which has already been established and which can induce immunity against COVID-19. Part of the dream has already come true, according to research by Radboudumc in Nijmegen. A vaccine against tuberculosis, which has been used for years, appears to have a general stimulating effect on the immune system. It therefore works effectively against several diseases. Whether COVID-19 is also part of this remains to be seen.

The study compared groups of volunteers who may or may not have received a BCG vaccine in the past five years (before the corona pandemic), and it shows that the vaccine is in any case safe and no additional risks of COVID-19 complaints with entails. The results of this research are now published in Cell Reports Medicine.

It Bacille Calmette-Guérin or BCG vaccine is the most received vaccine in the world. Originally intended as a treatment for tuberculosis, it later became clear that it provides a long-lasting general boost to the innate immune system. The vaccine was therefore also effective against other conditions. Professor of Experimental Internal Medicine Mihai Netea is conducting a lot of research into this effect at Radboud university medical center, which ‘trained immunity‘is called.

Most volunteers received the vaccine between April 2017 and June 2018. Doctor PhD candidate and lead author of the article Simone Moorlag explains that the purpose of that study was to determine the difference in the immune response between individuals. “We have now asked the same volunteers about illness and COVID-19 complaints during the corona pandemic. We then compared this data with that of a group of healthy volunteers who did not receive a BCG vaccine. ”

Safe, perhaps positive effect

What the comparison between the groups shows is that those who received the vaccine at least did not get sick more often or became more seriously ill. Therefore, the researchers conclude, it certainly does not hurt to vaccinate people with BCG. The data shows “a cautiously positive picture”, with a lower number of patients in the period March-May 2020 among the vaccinated group, and also fewer complaints of fatigue.

It is still too early for any major conclusions. The researchers underline that the positive result could be expected given the well-known effects of the BCG vaccine on healthy volunteers. Moreover, the study also has limitations that prevent conclusions from being drawn about the usefulness of the BCG vaccine for the coronavirus. Mihai Netea: “It is very important to be able to confirm that someone who has been vaccinated with BCG will not be harmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.” But he stresses that more study is needed to determine whether this COVID-19 vaccination can help.

To determine this, various studies are already underway, including a number of large studies in the Netherlands.

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