The quest for a glimmer of hope: Is there a link between the TB vaccine and the coronavirus?

Injy Deif , Monday 30 Mar 2020

Dr. Mohammed Abu Al Ghar, professor of gynaecology, discusses the possible link with Ahram Online

Mohamed Abou El-Ghar (Photo: Al-Ahram)
Mohamed Abou El-Ghar (Photo: Al-Ahram)
Clinical trials have kicked off in many countries in search of unconventional approaches to help humanity out of the coronavirus crisis.
One of the endeavours is based on the claim that a vaccine against tuberculosis (TB) can give the immune system a boost strong enough to fight the novel coronavirus.
At least four countries have announced their intention to conduct trials on those on the front line: doctors and nurses, and the elderly.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the TB vaccine was developed in the late 20th century by French doctors Camille Guerin and Albert Calmette.
The vaccine itself is not 100 percent effective, and its effectiveness varies from one country to the other, and ranges around the figure of 60 percent.
But could the struggle against diseases that vanished from developed countries ages offer hope for the new struggle?
The advantage that lies within
Dr. Mohammed Abu Al Ghar, professor of gynaecology, discussed the issue with Ahram Online.
“Since 2004, various studies have been conducted on African countries, especially in Guinea Bissau, where they found out that TB vaccination decreases the mortality of children not only from TB, but also from other diseases that are viral or bacterial,” Dr. Mohammed Abu Al Ghar, professor of gynaecology, told Ahram Online..
“Scientists already had this information in the back of their mind for years, and in 2018 many scientific publications pointed out the same info.”
Abu Al Ghar said that developed countries stopped administering the vaccine to infants decades ago because TB was practically eliminated. But in developing countries, it not only exists, but is also compulsory. In Egypt, the TB vaccine is one of the requirements to obtain a complete birth certificate.
Abu Al Ghar points out that although some statistics are difficult to obtain, other facts remain obvious and of great significance.
“No country can test all citizens, it is just not possible, neither in Egypt nor in any country. But although definite unreported cases could be overlooked, it is not the case with mortality, which cannot be hidden. It is very obvious that in some countries -- one of which is Egypt -- the infections are much less and the mortalities are way fewer than other places in the world, especially in Europe.
“Many possibilities loom, one of which is that because of less hygiene and more exposure, some populations have already developed some kind of cross-immunity that prevented the onset of the disease or made it take a milder form,” he says.
Abu Al Ghar says that in the Netherlands they have already started testing the TB vaccine on a thousand people, giving half the vaccine and the other half a placebo.
Australia will start in a few days, and Greece already has an ongoing experiment.
“These are all assumptions and hopes, and science will have the final word. Until then we should all practice social distancing and other measures that help society decrease its staggering losses,” he concluded.
The question of immunity
Dr. Abdel Hadi Mesbah, professor of immunity, also stressed to Ahram Online that caution is advised.
“Vaccines generally raise immune responses specific to a targeted pathogen. The vaccine, BCG, contains a weak strain of the microbe that causes TB, and it is given to children in their first year of life in most countries of the world, and within the first six months after birth in Egypt.”
“BCG also increases the ability of the immune system to fight off diseases other than the TB bacteria, thus preventing infections with any known pathogen, including viruses, in the first year after it’s given,” he said.
“Studies from various countries strengthened the clinical evidence investigating how BCG may generally boost the immune system. Nevertheless, any vaccine must be administered after profound and adequate trials to make sure that adverse effects don’t outweigh its benefits, and it is known that vaccinations in general are not all 100 percent effective with no exception, and it is also common knowledge that they come along with a price tag of some side effects in some cases,” he concluded.
At the time of writing, Egypt, which boasts a 100 million-strong population, has a total of 576 coronavirus cases nationwide, including 36 fatalities. 
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