“Prevention is better than cure” the hallmark epitome of vaccine research, has historically saved millions of lives from various infectious diseases. Vaccine development against some of the difficult diseases such as adult pulmonary TB, and malaria are challenging. The latest addition to the list is the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). It is a severe acute respiratory syndrome caused by the Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The virus is extremely contagious and has so far infected more than 12 million people around the globe. In the light of its rapid global spreading, on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization has declared it a pandemic. Interestingly, the global spreading of the disease and the casualty rate are not uniform, but have so far left some countries relatively less affected. The reason(s) for this anomalous behavior are not fully understood.
In JNU a research team Dr. Arnab Bhattacharya from School of Computational & Integrative Sciences and Prof Gobardhan Das from Special Center for Molecular Medicine in collaboration with Dr. Saurabh Kumar Sharma from School of Computer and System Sciences adopted an interdisciplinary data science approach to explore the possibilities of repurposing two existing drugs against COVID-19.
These are the universal vaccination with Bacillus Calmette–Guerin(BCG) and the widespread use of the antimalarial drug chloroquine (CQ). The JNU research group performed an extensive analysis of data for countries with over 1000 reported COVID-19 cases and has shown that the incidence and mortality were higher in countries in which BCG vaccination is either absent or has been discontinued, as compared with the countries with universal vaccination.
The group, in particular Prof Das was voicing in favor of exploring the repurposing possibilities of BCG vaccine against COVID-19 since the outbreak of the virus and now this publication from the group has strengthen their claim. Furthermore, it was noted that several advanced countries such as USA, Australia and Netherland have recently started investigating the role of BCG against COVID-19, which further supports the merit of the proposal by the JNU team. The team has also performed a similar analysis of the data available for CQ, a widely used drug in the African continent and in other countries in which malaria is endemic.
This is relevant as ICMR of Government of India has also approved usage of CQ as the drug to treat COVID-19 patients. Several African countries no longer recommend it officially for the fight against malaria, due to the development of resistance to Plasmodium, but its use across the continent is still diffuse. Taken together, the data in the literature have led to the suggestion of a possible inverse correlation between BCG immunization and COVID-19 disease incidence and severity. The finding, published in Nature Cell Death & Disease journal ((2020) 11:516, with a title BCG vaccination policy and preventive chloroquine usage: do they have an impact on COVID-19 pandemic? is novel and extremely encouraging at the time when the world is still clueless in developing an effective vaccine against the virus. The group is further planning to take this to next level and look for the translational aspect of their discovery.