File picture: GCIS
File picture: GCIS

New TB vaccine on the cards

By Tshepiso Tshabalala Time of article published Apr 4, 2021

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Johannesburg - Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG), a tuberculosis (TB) vaccine, has for more than a 100 years been the sole TB vaccine that has been administered to newborn babies to help prevent chances of being infected with the bacteria.

Developed by French bacteriologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin, the vaccine was developed between 1908 and 1921 and targeted mostly meningitis TB.

Now, a century later, Sefako Makgatho University together with Serum Institute of India (SIIPL), Max Plank Institute and Vakzine Projekt Management GmbH, are in the process of conducting a study of a second possible vaccine known as VPM1002.

This vaccine aims to help reduce the dreadful bacteria that is TB which has claimed millions of lives to date.

In the 2020 Global Tuberculosis report, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded approximately 360 000 South Africans who are infected with TB, which is a 20% increase from the preceding year, which was 301 000 in 2018.

In a 2019 report, the WHO reported a death toll of 64 000 of those who died from this illness. VPM1002, which is still in its testing phase, is said to be an improved version of the old vaccine and targets various types of TB bacterium whereas BCG mostly targets meningitis TB.

VPM1002 is yet to be approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAPHRA) as it is still undergoing clinical trials at the MeCRU Clinical Research Unit in Ga-Rankuwa, north-west of Pretoria.

According to the University’s Deputy Director of Campus Health and Counselling, who is also the principal investigator of the research study, Dr Matsontso Mathebula, earlier studies have proven the VPM1002 to be as equally effective and maybe even be better than BCG.

“This is the reason why we are doing the present study. This study will tell us whether VPM1002 will give protection from infection in newborns. We hope that it will give better protection than the BCG vaccine but we will have to wait for the trial results to know,” said Mathebula.

“These studies were small-scale and need to be proven correct by doing bigger studies that involve higher numbers. We are doing the VPM1002 study to prove this,” he said.

“TB vaccination has been administered for many years, with South Africa following an Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) which gives infants and babies vaccines from birth to the age of ten. Moreover, the Acceptance of the EPI programme is very high.

The clinical trial comes after the initial research study was approved by the University’s Research Ethics Committee on June 30, 2020.

Mathebula adds that the study targets 6940 pregnant women and new mothers in five of the Sub-Saharan Africa countries, who are above the age of 18 years and can voluntarily give consent to allow their newborns to be vaccinated with VPM1002 instead of BCG.

In South Africa alone, the research aims to vaccinate approximately 2 000 babies and alongside Kenya, Tanzania, Gabon, Uganda.

Like the BCG, this vaccine targets newborns as they are more prone to diseases due to their developing immune systems as compared to adults.

“Infants are never born with TB. They get infected after being exposed to infected adults. It is, therefore, important to teach their bodies to protect themselves from TB infection that may be severe. This study aims to immunise babies only because an adult may have been already exposed to TB,” said Mathebula.

“After vaccination, the body is able to control possible infection whilst the immune system of the individual is good. The infection thereafter lies dormant and controlled and may never bother the person again. However, It is possible that if the immune system of a person is compromised, the dormant infection flares up and the person suffers from overt TB infection. Furthermore, reinfection is possible even if vaccinated with both these vaccines,” he further explained.

Although babies are vaccinated at birth with either BCG or VMP1002, they may still get infected by TB in their adult years. This is mainly because the vaccine wears off as they get older and their immune systems are not strong enough to fight the disease on their own.

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The Sunday Independent

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