CLEVELAND, Ohio — Here’s an unexpected bonus that might come from being up-to-date with immunizations. Common vaccines, such as those for shingles and measles, may protect against severe COVID-19, recent studies suggest.
Previous research suggests that certain vaccines — including a tuberculosis and flu vaccines — may work not only against the specific diseases for which they were designed, but also against unrelated diseases.
Now, more scientists are testing the theory in regards to COVID-19.
If the findings are solid, these discoveries could be vital during the next pandemic. Existing vaccines could give protection against new strains of bugs while specific vaccines are being developed.
New research includes:
A collaboration between the Cleveland Clinic and Boston-based Brigham and Women’s Hospital found evidence suggesting that two common immunizations strengthen the COVID-19 vaccine’s ability to protect against severe COVID-19.
· A global study — which aimed to enroll up to 30,000 health-care workers — was among the first to evaluate on a large scale whether the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and Tdap vaccines can protect against COVID-19. Researchers expect to publish the data soon.
A Kaiser Permanente study pointed toward the conclusion that people vaccinated for shingles have a lower risk of COVID-19 diagnosis or hospitalization.
The Kaiser study “adds to this growing field of thinking about the potential nonspecific effects of vaccines in protecting against the many different infections that are out there,” said Katia Bruxvoort, adjunct investigator at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, and disease epidemiologist based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Bruxvoort was the Kaiser Permanente study’s co-first author.
How can a vaccine designed to protect against one disease be effective against a different disease?
Researchers think the vaccine trains the body to respond more quickly and more effectively to any pathogen it sees, Bruxvoort said.
“It’s like practice — it gets ready to prevent the next infection,” Bruxvoort said.
One hypothesis is that different viruses have common characteristics that apply to all, said Dr. Lara Jehi, the Clinic’s chief research information officer and co-author of the Clinic-Brigham and Women’s study.
“As the body is responding, it builds immunity to the whole thing, including the common elements that may apply to other viruses too,” Jehi said. “It gets you better prepared for the next infection.”
However, people should not use these results as an excuse to avoid getting vaccinated for COVID-19, Jehi said.
More research is needed before physicians recommend getting any vaccines in order to avoid becoming sick with COVID-19, Bruxvoort said. Staying up to date with all vaccination is recommended for a healthier and more responsive immune system, Bruxvoort said.
“Immunology studies will be needed to understand what’s happening on the cellular level,” Bruxvoort said. “I think that’s going to be the direction of research — seeing if there are ways to harness this system to optimize vaccination strategies so that we get optimal protection in the future.”
Are COVID-19 vaccines protective against other diseases? That is unknown, Jehi said. “It’s an interesting question,” Jehi said. “We’re learning so much about COVID-19,and how the body responds to it, with every passing day.”
Clinic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital joint study involves two childhood vaccines and COVID-19
A team of researchers from the Clinic — including Jehi — and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found evidence suggesting that MMR and Tdap vaccines strengthen the ability of a COVID-19 vaccine to protect against severe COVID-19.
The MMR vaccine is given during early childhood, and the Tdap vaccine is administered every 10 years.
Vaccines are designed to induce a strong and long-lasting immune response through the creation of specialty immune system cells, called memory T cells and B cells.
The idea is that pre-existing memory T cells generated by prior MMR or Tdap vaccination and activated by a current COVID-19 infection give the immune system a head start in responding to COVID-19, thereby lowering the risk of severe disease, researchers said .
The Clinic assisted Brigham and Women’s Hospital by analyzing data from more than 75,000 Clinic patients who tested positive for COVID-19 between March 2020, and March 2021, in Ohio or Florida.
The team found that COVID-19 patients who had previously been vaccinated for MMR had a 38% decrease in hospitalization and a 32% decrease in intensive care unit admission/death. Patients previously vaccinated for Tdap had 23% drop in hospitalization rates and 20% decreased rates for intensive care admission and death.
Findings were published a year ago in the journal Med. Michael W. Kattan, a member of the Clinic’s quantitative health science department, also worked on the Clinic-Brigham and Women’s study.
Kaiser Permanente evaluates shingles vaccine in Southern California-based trial
People who were vaccinated for shingles had a lower risk of COVID-19 diagnosis or hospitalization, according to a Kaiser Permanente study of people ages 50 and older. The research was published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in December.
The recombinant adjuvanted zoster vaccine, better known by the brand name Shingrix, is recommended for people ages 50 and older to protect against shingles.
To investigate the possibility that the shingles vaccine protects against COVID-19, Kaiser Permanente researchers conducted two kinds of analyses. Both analyzes used data from the electronic health records of Kaiser Permanente Southern California members ages 50 and older between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2020. COVID-19 vaccines were not widely available during that period.
“Each (type of) analysis has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages, so we applied both approaches to strengthen our study,” Bruxvoort said.
One analysis compared COVID-19 diagnoses and hospitalizations between 149,244 people who had received at least one dose of the shingles vaccine, and 298,488 people who had not.
The other analysis examined shingles vaccination status among 75,726 people who tested positive for COVID-19 during the study period and 340,898 whose COVID-19 tests were negative.
The analyzes suggested that people who had received at least one dose of the shingles vaccine were 16% less likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19. —no matter how long ago they had received the vaccine. Shingles vaccine recipients were 32% less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19.
GSK, the manufacturer of Shingrix, provided funding for this study.