An Australian trial for a coronavirus vaccine is set to start within weeks in the hopes of finding something that'll offer some relief on stressed healthcare systems in the country. It'll use an existing tuberculosis vaccine and it hopes the ready-made option will help boost immune systems of those on the frontline fighting the virus.
The trial, being undertaken by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, is expected to begin shortly and will see 4,000 health workers in hospitals around the country involved.
Unlike other clinical trials being conducted, the trial, called BRACE, will see an already available vaccine used to prevent tuberculosis, a severe bacterial infection, and measure its effectiveness with healthcare workers in direct contact with confirmed coronavirus patients.
The trial's lead, Professor Nigel Curtis, said the vaccine — called Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) being named afters its inventors — had a solid safety record given it had been around to treat tuberculosis for nearly 100 years.
"This is a vaccine with a very long track record of safety and this vaccine is used generally for its purpose of protecting against tuberculosis," Professor Curtis said in a research briefing.
"Each year, there are more than 130 million doses of this vaccine given to children worldwide... but we no longer give it in Australia simply because there is insufficient tuberculosis [outbreaks] in this country to justify giving it routinely."
Professor Curtis said while the dose stopped becoming common in the 1980s, it's recently been appreciated as containing properties that provided more than just a cure for the dangerous bacterial disease. It can help to fight off viral infections too — something deemed its 'off-target effects'.
"We now understand the vaccine has the ability to train the immune system to respond more strongly to infections... and that's due to the effect it has on the innate immune system — which is the first part of the immune system that is activated when we meet bacteria or viruses," Professor Curtis said.
"It's been shown previously by our collaborators that if you've had BCG [then] when you're subsequently infected with a virus, the level of that virus in your blood is lower."
For this reason, Professor Curtis and his team believe the BCG vaccine could help to strengthen the immune system's response to coronavirus, more specifically known as COVID-19, and this could be highly beneficial to those being exposed to it on a daily basis through their work.
"More than a month ago when COVID-19 was first detected in China, I was contacted by the WHO [World Health Organisation] who asked whether we thought the beneficial off-target effects of BCG might be helpful to protect frontline healthcare workers in China," Professor Curtis said.
"Healthcare workers are at high risk and are very vulnerable. There have already been deaths of healthcare workers [globally]... and so we felt this was an ideal group of individuals to try and protect using the BCG vaccine.
"We've seen from what's been happening in China and Italy and Spain that large numbers of the [healthcare] workforce have become unwell with COVID-19 or have to go into quarantine and that makes it even more difficult for hospitals to cope with the surge of patients."
One of the chosen hospitals for the randomised control trial in Australia is Melbourne Campus' Royal Children's Hospital.
A number of research groups around the world are racing to find a vaccine for coronavirus as it continues to spread globally. But while we have some of the world's brightest minds on the case, a vaccine is still months, potentially even years away.
While the BRACE trial is the only one of its kind happening in Australia, similar trials were being held around the world. Professor Curtis pointed to simultaneous trials occurring in The Netherlands and the United States and said it was good for gathering further necessary data and to see how it would vary based on seasons with Australia soon heading into its flu season.
Concerns could be raised regarding the testing of available treatments and what that could do for people hoping to trial them out independently ahead of the results. In the United States, President Trump announced an anti-malarial drug, known as chloroquine, was being looked at as a cure for coronavirus and incorrectly said it would be made available for coronavirus treatment "almost immediately".
Pres. Trump touts chloroquine, an old malaria drug, that doctors say may help treat novel coronavirus, claims it will be available "almost immediately."
— ABC News (@ABC) March 19, 2020
Relevant health authorities in the United States then raced to pull back the president's announcement. The FDA stated it had not approved the drug and the CDC said it needed further testing in relation to its effectiveness against coronavirus but it was too late for some who had received the president's message.
The chloroquine phosphate used for treating aquarium fish is not the same as the FDA-approved chloroquine being studied as a possible treatment for #COVID19. Do not take any form of chloroquine unless prescribed to you by a health care provider & obtained from legitimate sources.
— Dr. Stephen M. Hahn (@SteveFDA) March 25, 2020
An Arizona man was pronounced dead after ingesting chloroquine phosphate, a fish tank cleaner, while a woman was left in a serious condition after also ingesting the substance.
Professor Curtis said a race to get the tuberculosis vaccine couldn't happen like it did in the U.S. with chloroquine as there are very strict measures for the use of BCG outside of a trial. In Australia, it's only used for children under the age of five who are travelling to countries where tuberculosis is highly prevalent.
"That's the only legal way this vaccine could be provided outside of a trial," Professor Curtis said.
With Professor Curtis admitting the trial will take six months before WHO could ramp up the vaccine's production if it was proven as successful, the preventative method is still a distant hope.
"The trial is... for six months with an interim look at the results by our data safety monitoring board in three months just in case there is a very obvious result in our data that tells us not to continue one way or another," Professor Curtis said.
Regardless of the timeline, if trials like these can help suppress the severity of the virus, it might buy us some much-needed time to find a cure for complete prevention.
For now though, it's just a waiting game.
The covid-19 pandemic is a disorienting, fast-moving, dangerous crisis that has basically everyone in the world in its grips. As is so often the case in times of disaster, people, including political leaders, are promoting conspiracy theories about the origin, spread, and seriousness of the new coronavirus.