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ICMR study on BCG vaccine did not assess if it works for Covid, says JNU professor

Professor Gobardhan Das, one of the early proponents of the theory that BCG may protect against Covid, is unimpressed by the recent ICMR study.

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New Delhi: The recently released study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that linked the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine to a raised immune response does not make any assessment on whether the vaccine works for Covid-19, says Professor Gobardhan Das of the department of molecular medicine at JNU.

Professor Das was among the early proponents of the theory about BCG vaccine’s protective role against Covid, and has also published a paper on this in the journal Nature.

“In this study, they show that BCG leads to upregulation of innate immunity … in any condition one cannot relate this to specific infection. Adaptive immunity always works with antigen specificity. (In) This study what they are extrapolating, they are trying to say is like throwing stone in a jungle. It has no relation to Covid, at least in this study. If they had injected something else other than BCG, they would have seen the same thing. Although it is being projected as a Covid-19 immunity, that is not right,” Das told ThePrint in an interview.

The study by ICMR’s National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT) in Chennai has shown that administering the BCG vaccine — primarily used against tuberculosis — to elderly individuals can enhance their innate and adaptive immunity, which, the study says, could help protect against the novel coronavirus.

Also read: Here is why the ICMR study that found plasma therapy ineffective on Covid is being questioned

‘Had given proposal for recombinant BCG’

Das adds that he had, in as early as March, written to the Ministry of Science and Technology, ICMR and other government agencies with a proposal for carrying out tests with a recombinant BCG vaccine that uses an antigen from the SARS-CoV-2 virus to trigger a specific immune response. However, he says, he is yet to get a response.

“In mid-March, I wrote to ICMR, science ministry, etc. to start BCG revaccination for those in high risk groups such as health workers, doctors and elderly. Fortunately, that has later on been adopted in clinical trials in many places, although I am not involved in that. India did start, so that is a good thing…I was the first person to communicate, not just to ICMR but various other authorities. I was not involved in the ICMR study. I don’t know why they did not involve me, that is their prerogative. I was the first person to point out the link,” he says.

He also talks about the hygiene hypothesis as something that could possibly explain Bihar’s numbers, which despite multiple reported violations of Covid protocols during the assembly election, has seen one of the lowest fatality rates and active cases in the country. This is despite the fact that the health infrastructure availability in Bihar is among the worst in the country.

Professor Das says that it is possible that the low hygiene levels in the state have made people’s immune systems better equipped to handle infections. This is also the topic of a recent pre-print study by the new paper by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Also read: Bihar’s Covid numbers are remarkable, but experts say it’s ‘very difficult to explain’ how


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