Tuberculosis vaccine to be trialled on Australian health workers treating coronavirus patients

Researchers are hoping an old tuberculosis vaccine may help lead the fight against coronavirus, with Australian healthcare workers to join a global trial.

A health worker wearing overalls and protective masks perform a swab test.

A health worker wearing overalls and protective masks perform a swab test. Source: AAP

In an effort to protect frontline health workers from coronavirus, researchers are turning to a vaccine unused in Australia since the 1980s.

Murdoch Children's Research Institute will join a global trial using the tuberculosis vaccine to counter the symptoms of coronavirus.

The six-month trial will involve 4000 healthcare workers in Australia, lead researcher Nigel Curtis told reporters on Thursday.


Half of the workers will not be given the vaccine with researchers hoping to get some sign of its effectiveness in three months.

There have been about 2,800 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia with 13 deaths as the country braces for the outbreak to gather pace.

Professor Curtis said besides combating tuberculosis, the vaccine boosts the body's immune system, reducing the symptoms of coronavirus.

"It's really the first time the vaccine has been used in this way," Professor Curtis said.

"The vaccine has the ability to 'train' the immune system to respond more strongly to infection."

He said healthcare workers were particularly vulnerable to infection, pointing to deaths of frontline workers overseas.

Similar trials are starting in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK but the Australian trial will be one of the largest.

Unlike the northern hemisphere, Australia will be facing coronavirus into winter's flu season, which would provide more data for researchers.

But he said it was still important for countries to be developing a coronavirus vaccine.

"This has really alerted to the world that we are always just a few weeks away from a pandemic," Professor Curtis said.

"Even if we make a vaccine against this particular virus, if a different one pops up, it's very good for us to have an off-the-shelf vaccine that works against the number of different viruses."

Professor Curtis said people who had already had coronavirus or were unwell would be excluded from the trial.

He said the initial rush of people to get chloroquine - a malaria vaccine which was unsuccessful in combating coronavirus - showed the need for intense studies.

"If I didn't think (the tuberculosis vaccine) would work, I wouldn't have been here seven days a week for the last month with a team of 20 people," he said.

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Published 27 March 2020 at 9:58am