COVID-19 Provides Lessons for TB Vaccine Development

Encouraged by how fast vaccines have been developed for COVID-19, tuberculosis advocates launched a “TB vaccine roadmap” on Tuesday and aim to use lessons from the pandemic to jumpstart the quest for a TB vaccine.

The purpose of the roadmap, said Frank Cobelens of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, is to provide “key actionable priorities” to develop affordable vaccines for use in low and middle income countries.

TB vaccine research and development (R&D) needs to focus on “diversifying the vaccine pipeline, accelerating clinical development, and ensuring public health impact,” he added.

But Willem Hanekom, head of the African Health Research Institute, warned that implementation of the roadmap was key, pointing out that a similar “TB blueprint” had been published 10 years ago.

“We need to establish COVID-19 as a global crisis,” said Hanekom, adding that TB deaths in India, Indonesia and South Africa exceeded COVID-19 deaths.

He also called for more investment in TB, pointing to $78.6-billion spent on R&D for COVID-19 vaccines whereas $1-billion is spent annually on TB vaccine development.

Rethinking and Repurposing

Delivering the keynote address at the TB Vaccine Conference, South Africa’s Professor Helen Rees said that COVID-19 had taught researchers the importance of “rethinking and repurposing”.

“Everyone is rethinking how we have traditionally done clinical trials,” said Rees. “What do we do to bridge from the pre-clinical to clinical development phases that is innovative and much stronger than what we already have?

“What biomarkers can be used to support and accelerate decisions? When we move from phase two to phase three trials, what kind of trial designs and very innovative, adaptive and seamless designs can be  introduced?” she asked.

The HIV field was looking at the development of mRNA vaccines “backwards”, to see whether the same approach could be applied to HIV, added Rees, who chairs the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).

She also said drugs were also being repurposed for COVID-19 and this was also the case for TB.

“We’ve been doing a lot of rethinking about [the TB vaccine] BCG, and there have been a number of trials, for example, in adolescents, seeing whether the use of a BCG booster will have an impact on disease outcome for TB. 

“There have also been trials looking at different timing of offering BCG to newborns. So this is taking an existing technology and saying, can we adapt it and do something different with it and get a better outcome?”

Studies were also looking into whether BCG could be “repurposed” for COVID-19. 

“Can we use the BCG vaccine phenomenon that is known to induce both humoral and adaptive immunity, that it has this nonspecific immune response that can be used to boost the immune system?” she asked.

Affordability and Access

Rees added that the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted issues of “access and affordability”, reminding the conference that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) had been set up in 2017 as a public health innovation and funding mechanism in response to  Ebola “to enable equitable access of these vaccines for affected populations during outbreaks”. 

“CEPI has definitely been thrown into the forefront in terms of COVID,” said Rees, who chairs the initiative’s scientific advisory committee.

“Vaccine innovation and introduction is something that COVID has just revolutionised. The timeline between identification of a vaccine and registration was under a year – unprecedented,” said Rees. 

“If there are good things to come out of COVID-19, one of them is to say how important vaccines are in terms of control and elimination of diseases.

“If we want to eliminate TB, we desperately need better vaccines and the clock is ticking.”


Image Credits: Socios en Salud .

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