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Q&A: TB vaccine may boost the body's immune system to fight coronavirus


The coronavirus is new and it is unclear if there could be side effects. Photo: REUTERS

The coronavirus is new and it is unclear if there could be side effects. Photo: REUTERS

The coronavirus is new and it is unclear if there could be side effects. Photo: REUTERS

Q: The TB vaccine is being seen as a potential game-changer in the fight against the coronavirus. What have researchers found?

A: The BCG vaccine could possibly provide protection against Covid-19 and help reduce death rates. Studies suggest that countries that have mass vaccination programmes have had fewer cases of the infection.

Q: Where has this study been carried out?

A: Researchers at the New York Institute of Technology looked at countries which never implemented a universal BCG vaccination programme and found they were hit harder by the virus. Italy, which did not have universal BCG vaccination, as we know has suffered a high rate of infection and death. But Japan, which started its BCG programme in 1947, has had fewer deaths and less emergency measures.

Q: What is it in the TB vaccine that could provide this protection?

A: It is believed to boost the body's immune capacity, which helps it respond better to the infection.

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Q: That is good news for Ireland surely?

A: Yes. Universal vaccination of newborns with the TB vaccine was first introduced in Ireland in the 1950s. It was given in maternity hospitals routinely. TB incidence has been in decline here over the last 25 years.

Q: Is it still administered to babies?

A: No. There has been a global shortage in recent years. So children under five would not have been vaccinated. But they are not in the high-risk group for coronavirus. It means that a huge swathe of the population here got the vaccine.

Q: Is there a case for giving a booster to older people now?

A: Trials are under way in Australia and the results should be known in around three to six months. It is being led by Dr Mihai Netea, of the Radbount University Medical Centre in Melbourne. It involves giving the vaccine or a dummy placebo to healthcare workers. He said it is better to await the findings before acting on giving it to large population groups.

Q: Why are they being hesitant, given the threat of the coronavirus?

A: The coronavirus is new and it is unclear if there could be side effects. The shortage of the TB vaccine is also a problem.

Q: Is that the only trial that is under way?

A: No, there are several being conducted. Dublin urologist Dr Paul Hegarty, of the Mater Hospital in Dublin, is also working with experts in the University of Texas in the United States.

They found countries such as Ireland, which had a universal programme of TB vaccination, had a much lower rate of coronavirus infection. It is largely a statistical study and must be read with caution. There may be confounding factors which could distort some of the conclusions. But it all adds to the possibility that the vaccine could be protective. The importance of physical distancing and other measures would remain.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland

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