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Israeli study finds TB vaccine may provide extra COVID-19 protection in people under 24

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The team of researchers from Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University found that vaccinations against Tuberculosis administered in the last 15 years may mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in people under 24.

By ILANIT CHERNICK

A team of researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have found that vaccinations against Tuberculosis administered in the last 15 years may provide additional protection against COVID-19 to people under 24.

Dr. Nadav Rappoport of BGU’s Department of Software and Information Systems Engineering collaborated with colleagues from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem to analyze the correlation between countries’ policies for the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine for tuberculosis and countries’ COVID-19 outcomes.

Speaking to IsraelNewsStand, Rappoport made it clear that the results of this study “do not show that BCG vaccine reduces COVID-19 risk or complication. 

“It only points out an association between the number of years the BCG vaccine was administered and better COVID-19 outcomes like death rate and number of critical ills,” he explained. “It does call for further study on the effect of BCG-19 [and] it also implies that the effect is limited in its length, as we found this association is significant in younger groups.”

According to Rappoport and his team, BCG regimes are associated with some protection from COVID-19, which either reduces infection rates or reduces death rates. 

The protection, he stressed, was significant among those aged 24 or younger who had received the vaccination in the last 15 years. 

“There was no effect among older adults who had received the BCG vaccine years ago,” the team said.

Asked about how the research was conducted, Rappoport told IsraelNewsStand that the team took a large scope and analyzed normalized data from 55 countries around the world, which comprise 62.9% of the world’s population.

When it came to normalizing the data, the research team included countries with populations more than 3 million. Due to the fact that the pandemic reached different countries at different dates, they then aligned countries by the first date at which the country reached a death rate of 0.5 deaths per million or higher. 

Following this step, they controlled for demographic, economic, pandemic-restriction-related and health-related country-based variables.

Addressing if countries including Israel should ramp up TB inoculations in the face of the corona pandemic if it’s found to be mitigating the virus, Rappoport said that such a conclusion was too speculative at this stage in accordance to their study, but stressed that it’s not impossible.
“For example, it may be the case that BCG does provide protection, but it takes several weeks/months/years to get it the maximum protection,” he explained. “Moreover, we do see that the BCG vaccine does not provide 100% protection. However, even some protection can reduce infection rate or recovery time by a few percent, which can have a large effect in such pandemics. 

“The results definitely call for further research and investigation,” he added.

To figure out if other vaccines also influenced COVID-19 outcomes, the researchers conducted the same analysis for the measles and rubella vaccines and found that those vaccines do not have a significant association with COVID-19 outcomes.

Other epidemiological studies have shown the effect of the BCG vaccine beyond tuberculosis, but scientists do not yet know why the vaccine has such an effect.

Asked about their next step following these results, Rappoport said the team wants to focus on comparing populations in similar environments that have and have not received the BCG vaccine. 

“Another direction we could take things is to compare populations who did get the vaccine, but are from different environments,” he said.

Concluding, Rappoport stressed that their findings “suggest that exploring BCG vaccine protocols in the context of the current pandemic could be worthwhile.”

*Featured Image: Dr. Nadav Rappoport. (Credit: Dani Machlis/BGU)

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