Scientists from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) launched a trial earlier this week that will test to see if the MMR vaccine, given to children to protect against measles, mumps and rubella, would be an effective defense against COVID-19.
In a joint statement from the two universities, the scientists justified the trial by pointing out that there is growing evidence to suggest that the MMR vaccine could be beneficial for more than the protection against measles, mumps, and rubella.
“Firstly, this type of vaccine, which contains small amounts of very weakened measles, mumps, and rubella viruses, appears to strengthen the body’s immune response to infections in general, not just to the viruses in that particular vaccine,” Sinead Delany-Moretlwe, one of the trial’s national principal investigators and a research professor at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, said in the statement.
According to the scientists, the weakened viruses contained in the MMR vaccine bear similarities to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that results in COVID-19, which further justifies the need for their trial. They are hoping that the vaccine will be able to encourage an immune response in the body that could slow the spread of the virus.
The launch of this trial is not to take away from the ongoing international efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19, rather the scientists are hoping it could be used to protect those with high exposure to the virus, namely frontline workers, in the interim.
“If we discover that the MMR vaccine can help train the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection, then we will have something to administer very quickly while waiting for more specific vaccines and preventive therapies to be developed,” said Prof. Bruce Biccard, national co-principal investigator and second chairperson in the Department of Anaesthetics at the UCT.
He explained that if the trial is successful, they believe that the MMR vaccine could help to enhance the effectiveness of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines that are currently being developed.
According to Health24, the trial is being funded by a $9 million (R152 million) grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, Mastercard, and other public and philanthropic donors.
They are planning to enroll 5,000 health care workers across South Africa for the trial, and hope to recruit 30,000 participants worldwide.
Countries involved in the study are low- and middle-income nations including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Uganda, as well as high-income countries such as the US, UK, and Ireland.
The trial is expected to last a year and each participant will be monitored for five months.