New TB Vaccine A Strong Possibility

by William Ecenbarger

Tuberculosis is the 13th leading cause of death in the world and its second worst infectious killer. Only COVID 19 claimed more lives, and there were fewer deaths from HIV and AIDS. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 10.6 million people fell ill with TB in 2021, and 1.6 million of them died. The WHO estimates that one in every four people in the world has latent TB, meaning they are infected with bacterium that causes TB. Up to 10 percent of them will develop TB.

Despite these numbers, the only TB vaccine in use today was developed in 1921 and is only moderately effective.

But a new TB vaccine, called M72, is now on the horizon. A trial is being backed by the Gates Foundation ($400 million) and the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust ($150 million). The trial, at sites in Africa and Asia, will take between four and six years.

The M72 vaccine was initially developed some 20 years ago by the British firm GSK (formerly GlaxoSmithKline), but GSK abandoned it in 20l9 because the company believed it lacked economic return.

But in the GSK trials, the shot showed a 54 percent efficacy in reducing pulmonary TB. Maziar Divangahi, associate director of the McGill International TB Centre, said this was “really a big deal.” He went on to note that the WHO concludes that over 25 years, a vaccine with at least 50 percent efficacy could prevent up to 76 million new TB cases and 8.5 million deaths, avert the need for 42 million courses of antibiotic treatment, and prevent US$41.5 billion in TB related catastrophic household costs, especially for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Julia Gillard, chair of the Board of Governors at Wellcome, concurred. “The development of an affordable, accessible vaccine for adults and adolescents would be game-changing in turning the tide against TB. Philanthropy can be a catalyst to drive progress, as shown by this funding of the M72 vaccine as a potential new tool in preventing escalating infectious diseases to protect those most affected. Sustainable progress against TB and wider disease threats will depend on global collaboration, financial backing, and political will. By working with communities and researchers in countries with a high burden of the disease, we can get one step closer to eliminating TB as a public health threat.”

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the support by the Gates Foundation and Wellcome to develop a new TB vaccine shows the world can turn the tide on the TB crisis through sustained political and financial action.

Although TB occurs in every part of the world, the WHO says over 80 percent of TB cases and deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. Indeed, more than two thirds of the global total occurs in eight nations–Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

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