Will a Live Flu Vaccine Help Fight off COVID?

October 12, 2020

There's a possibility the flu shot can help protect those who receive it from COVID-19.

According to Virologist Robert Gallo, there's a possibility the flu shot can help protect those who receive it from COVID-19.

Gallo, who was one of the main scientists credited with discovering HIV, directs the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and is chairman of the Global Virus Network. He said to NPR the key is getting the right flu vaccine.

Gallo claims the vaccine has to have a live virus in it. The virus is attenuated so it doesn't cause disease, but it is alive.

Having a live vaccine offers more advantages and is safe for the immune system, the NPR report says. Most likely, a live vaccine like the measles or oral polio vaccine has been taken in some folk's lifetimes.

In general, vaccines work by tricking the body to produce antibodies. These molecules are very specific. They typically target and neutralize only one type of infection.

Live vaccines also work through antibodies, but they also supercharge our body's front-line defenders—the cells that first recognize an invader and try to clear it out before the infection gets out of control, says immunologist Zhou Xing at McMasters University in Ontario, in the report. Specifically, scientists think live vaccines reprogram immune cells in the bone marrow, called myeloid cells.

Unlike antibodies, myeloid cells are nonspecific — they work on many types of invaders. And they work quickly when the virus first enters a person's body, the report says.

In this process, the question remains: Will live vaccines help a person fight off COVID-19 from their body before they get sick or before the infection becomes severe?

In order to answer the question, scientists around the world are currently running more than a dozen clinical trials with both BCG and the live polio vaccine to see whether they offer some protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.

No one believes the protection will be as strong or as long-lived as a specific COVID-19 vaccine, the report says, but a BCG vaccine has several advantages to a specific vaccine.

A BCG vaccine is the vaccine for tuberculosis and has boosted immune systems under the measles, yellow fever and polio. According to the report, BCG is cheap, a dose only costs a few dollars and it's safe.

More than 130 million kids every year receive the BCG vaccine, so, this vaccine could be a potential stand-in until there is a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, the report says.

Until then, the BCG vaccine could be approved — and available — by early next year.

In the meantime, Gallo says, "why not go get the live flu vaccine, if you can?"

This year, the flu vaccine comes in two major forms: a shot or a nasal spray. The shot, which is approved for all people above age 6 months who don't have contraindications, contains an inactivated virus or components of the virus. The nasal spray (FluMist), which is approved for people ages 2 to 49, contains live, attenuated flu viruses.

If you get a vaccine, it's recommended to still exercise all the same cautious you would otherwise: Wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands and avoid large indoor gatherings.