New Delhi: The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the apex body in the field, has begun work to understand if the vaccine for tuberculosis — bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) — could be used to strengthen immunity against Covid-19.
If the trials prove successful, it could come as a relief to healthcare workers, the elderly and people with comorbidities. However, Dr Nivedita Gupta, senior scientist at the ICMR told ThePrint that the available evidence suggesting the BCG vaccine’s efficacy for public health use during the pandemic is “minuscule”.
The vaccine, named after French microbiologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin, was developed over 100 years ago, in 1919, to fight against the highly contagious respiratory illness tuberculosis.
Task force meeting
Gupta said the ICMR has started the discussions considering the preliminary study posted on medRxiv, a site for unpublished medical research, which found that the countries with mandatory policies to vaccinate against tuberculosis with BCG register fewer coronavirus deaths than countries that don’t have those policies.
The team of scientists at the ICMR discussed the possible usage and effectiveness of the vaccine during the meeting of the task force Sunday.
“BCG was discussed at the task force meeting… However, there is minuscule evidence of efficacy of BCG among 60 and above-aged individuals, which are high-risk Covid-19 groups,” Gupta said. “In fact, the evidence for all age groups for Covid-19 is minuscule.”
While clinicians in at least six countries are running trials that involve giving frontline health workers and elderly people the BCG vaccine to see whether it can provide some level of protection against the novel coronavirus, India plans to generate “more concrete evidence”.
“We will generate adequate scientific evidence before implementing any public health strategy related to this,” Gupta said.
The medRxiv study
The analysis in the study was made after its lead author Gonzalo Otazu, assistant professor at the New York Institute of Technology, noticed the low number of Covid-19 cases in Japan.
Otazu knew about studies showing that the BCG vaccine provided protection against not just tuberculosis bacteria but also other types of contagions.
The Otazu-led study found a strong correlation between compulsory BCG vaccinations and a lower number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.
Among high-income countries showing a large number of Covid-19 cases, the US and Italy recommend BCG vaccines but only for people who might be at risk, whereas Germany, Spain, France and the UK used to have BCG vaccine policies but ended them many years ago.
Otazu said: “China, where the pandemic began, has a BCG vaccine policy but it wasn’t adhered to very well before 1976.”
Countries including Japan and South Korea, which have managed to control the disease, have universal BCG vaccine policies. However, the data on confirmed cases from low-income countries was considered not reliable enough to make a strong judgment.
Trials around the world
The first BCG trial for the novel coronavirus started in March in the Netherlands, where 1,000 healthcare workers from eight hospitals received either the BCG vaccine or a placebo.
“The research is a collaboration of four countries, and apart from the Netherlands, three other teams are starting trials soon in Australia, the UK and Germany,” said a report.
In India, the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and developer of a new form of the BCG vaccine, is also ready to test the vaccine.
While many people get the BCG vaccination in childhood, studies have shown that the TB vaccine’s effects offer protection for about 15 years.