Could Older Vaccines Fight COVID-19?

The only way to get the COVID-19 virus under control will be when people are immune. That could be because a large amount of us become ill and develop immunity or because of a vaccine. But vaccines take months and months and months to be developed. They have to be widely tested to know if they are safe and effective. Because of that, it is highly unlikely that we will have a vaccine for COVID-19 while the pandemic is happening.

Some doctors worry we may never have a reliable vaccine for COVID-19. It is closely related to SARS, and animal tests using the SARS vaccine found the animals were not protected from that virus. The FDA has never approved a human vaccine for any coronavirus. Finding other ways to prevent it are a must.

Some viruses are very easy to make a vaccine for, and some are very complicated,” said Adolfo García-Sastre, director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It depends on the specific characteristics of how the virus infects.” A weak vaccine would be better than nothing. Doctors are still working to find a possible answer.

Because of this, scientists are looking to existing vaccines that have already been proven safe for other illnesses. One team is looking at the polio vaccine. It would not vaccinate people against COVID-19. However, it could boost the body’s immune system, making it primed to fight off the virus. Countries that used the polio vaccine in children in the ‘70s saw far fewer cases of the flu. That shows that the vaccine can boost the immune system against other infections.   

A different group of researchers thinks the tuberculosis vaccine might work. “This is still a hypothesis,” said Dr. Mihai Netea of Radboud Univ. Medical Center in the Netherlands. “It could be a very important tool to bridge this dangerous period until we have on the market a proper, specific vaccine.”

The World Health Organization warns that using a different vaccine against COVID-19 is not to be done until studies show positive results. Both of these vaccines use weakened versions of the live virus so that the body can learn to fight it. For someone with a compromised immune system, that can be dangerous.

While this isn’t a long-term solution, we find it deeply heartening to know that doctors around the world are taking so many approaches with different vaccines. Knowing that people are out there, fighting against this virus, gives us a lot of hope that they will get a solid grip on COVID-19 soon. If they find a way to fight the rapid spread of the virus, they can buy time to do more research. While the FDA has never approved a vaccine for a coronavirus, there is always a first. With its wide distribution across borders, doctors all over the world are studying the virus and working together to conquer it.
April 24, 2020
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