(CN) — A vaccine commonly used against the measles and mumps could be used to prevent the kind of severe lung damage that frequently leads to people dying of Covid-19, two New Orleans-based researchers say.
In a paper published Friday in a journal of the American Society for Microbiology, the duo suggested that the measles vaccine, known as the MMR vaccine, could be particularly useful for frontline health care workers who stand a high chance of being exposed to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
In the paper, the researchers pointed to mounting evidence that “live attenuated vaccines” like the one used to prevent measles can also go after infections that they weren’t specifically designed to target. They said that evidence suggests those kinds of vaccines can train “precursor” cells, which eventually develop into immune system cells, to ward off a broad range of infections that lead to severe lung inflammation and eventually lung damage.
“This could be a game changer,” said Mairi Noverr, a microbiology professor at Tulane University’s School of Medicine and co-author on Friday’s paper. “Not just during this time when we’re dealing with Covid-19, but the pandemics over the past 10-20 years have all be coronavirus related, like SARS and MERS, and they all seem to kill kind of by the same mechanism.”
The researchers stressed in the paper that they were not proposing to use the measles vaccine to actually treat or prevent the Covid-19 disease itself, but rather just to hopefully prevent the severe lung problems that often come along with it.
Moreover, they cautioned that the idea has not been scientifically proven yet.
“I don’t want people running to their doctor [saying] ‘give me the vaccine, it’ll protect me!’” said Noverr. “We hope it does, but we just don’t know.”
Still, the paper’s other author, Paul Fidel of Louisiana State University Health, described the prospect as a “low-risk, high-reward” idea worth investigating further.
“It’s not the virus that’s killing these people or making them deathly ill, it’s the severe lung inflammation,” he said. “It sort of makes your lungs like a sponge and you just can’t breathe anymore.”
The idea stems from research the duo conducted on mice at a lab run by Noverr. The two researchers are also married.
One big unknown factor is how effective the measles vaccine could be for people with existing lung disease, obesity or other health conditions known as “comorbidities” that put them at greater risk from the coronavirus.
“Obviously, our mice are all younger and healthy and uniform,” Noverr said.
As evidence to support the idea, the duo cited the story of sailors abord the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the virus-plagued U.S. Navy ship that became wrapped up in a dramatic political scandal after its captain was controversially removed for speaking out about the Navy’s slow response to the outbreak on the ship.
Only one of the more than 900 sailors on the ship who became infected with the virus had to be hospitalized, a much lower hospitalization rate than what has been seen in the general population. That may have been due to the fact that all Navy recruits receive the measles vaccine, the researchers said in Friday’s paper.
Fidel and Noverr have proposed a formal clinical trial of the idea, focused on populations most at risk for the disease. Noverr has already been awarded a grant to begin studying the application of the measles vaccine on coronavirus-infected primates.
Fidel said he couldn’t speak precisely to whether using the measles vaccine as a precautionary measure against Covid-19 symptoms would significantly disrupt supplies of the vaccine. Earlier in the pandemic, when President Donald Trump promoted the drug hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment despite a lack of evidence that it works, Lupus patients who depend on the drug complained that they were suddenly unable to find it because of a run on supplies, according to an investigation by ProPublica.
Still, Fidel said it would likely be easy to ramp up production of the measles vaccine if it were found to be effective.
“If planned accordingly, I think it’d be okay, but you have to plan,” he said.