The world is in urgent need of a Covid-19 vaccine. Even as experts are hoping to deliver one by January 2020, others think we need a temporary fix in the form of an oral polio vaccine that is over five decades old. A group of scientists believes that may protect people until a coronavirus vaccine becomes available and has called for large-scale testing.
“If it works, it really has great potential against future pandemics, not just this one,” Shyam Kottilil, director of the Clinical Care and Research Division of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told NBC News. “It takes a year, year and a half [to develop a new vaccine], and during that time, a lot of people lose their lives.”
The oral polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s to protect against polio disease which paralyzes children for life. The disease has since been eradicated in all countries barring Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, nations continue to vaccinate children as the virus is capable of striking again. Now, scientists, including Dr Robert Gallo, one of the researchers who discovered HIV, are popping a question in a Science Perspective: can oral polio vaccines provide short-term immunity against Covid-19? Though they are optimistic that they could strengthen the body’s defenses against the disease, other experts have their reservations.
To support their argument, Gallo and his colleagues cited an older study conducted on 60,000 individuals. It showed that oral polio vaccines were effective against other viral diseases such as the flu and genital herpes infections. This is because the vaccine activates our body’s first line of defense that seeks out intruders. In doing so, it might make the disease less severe. They think that a polio shot could orchestrate a similar attack on a foreign agent, such as the new coronavirus.
Commenting on the idea of repurposing the vaccine for Covid-19, Rachel Roper, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, told NBC News: “I do believe the oral polio vaccine would provide some protection against new viruses, but so would catching a cold. We won’t see safety concerns until we test it in large trials that include a lot of people,” she added.
Michael J Buchmeier, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of California at Irvine, expressed concerns over safety to the Washington Post. He feared it could over-activate the immune system, leading to more complications. Gallo and his colleagues are now hoping to raise money to fund a large human trial. If the results turn out to be positive, it could protect the most vulnerable populations, the team said. Additionally, it could shield people from unrelated emerging pathogens.
Meanwhile, the global polio eradication initiative, a public-private partnership that works with the World Health Organization (WHO), said: “There is no evidence that the oral poliovirus vaccine protects people against infection with the Covid-19 virus. A clinical trial addressing this question is planned in the USA, and the WHO will evaluate the evidence when it is available.” Until then, they add, the UN health agency does not recommend it to prevent the new coronavirus disease.