Vaccine against rare disease could protect 20 million Chinese children

BEIJING — An unusual type of vaccine from China will be widely distributed to children in the country for the first time in a move that could help protect some 40 million children from…

Vaccine against rare disease could protect 20 million Chinese children

BEIJING — An unusual type of vaccine from China will be widely distributed to children in the country for the first time in a move that could help protect some 40 million children from a common and deadly childhood disease, according to Chinese researchers.

The vaccine, called COVID, will treat diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. Diphtheria is an upper respiratory tract infection caused by bacteria that enter the upper airways through the throat, and tetanus is a bacterial infection that attacks the inner lining of the abdomen. The associated symptoms are convulsions, high blood pressure and death.

Diphtheria had been eradicated in the United States by the late 1990s but has recently returned with a vengeance. Cases of diphtheria and pertussis, the most common form of pertussis, or whooping cough, rose sharply in 2017 and have continued rising this year. The CDC estimates that as many as 21,000 cases of whooping cough have been reported in the United States in 2018, and is nearly 12 times more cases than usual this year. More than 350 cases have been confirmed in Wisconsin.

“Most emerging infectious diseases are seen in America first,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vaccines aren’t the magic bullet. Still, the practical challenge for large populations of people to achieve immunization levels requires solutions like COVID, which are now much more affordable and easier to implement than they were in the past.”

The COVID vaccine contains both a single live diphtheria virus and a combination of vaccine manufacturing by Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, which is licensed for public use and has an easy regulatory approval process in the United States. The live D/TC part of the vaccine provides the needed immunity while the novel BALI component means the vaccine can be manufactured without a large number of pre-marketing samples as required by the European Medicines Agency, which approved the BALI component, said Yan Wang, a senior scientist at the Ministry of Health in Shanghai and the main author of a study published Nov. 8 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The BALI component gives COVID a major benefit by eliminating the need for two doses of the original vaccine for those aged 12 months to 64 months, which is also a major issue with many public health vaccines, Wang said. Some pediatricians have estimated that a single vaccine would be cheaper than a two-dose vaccine for older children but recent cost studies done in the United States have suggested that such a vaccine would be less effective.

When children receive two doses of the pneumococcal vaccine, they enter a “protective window” at the age of 12 to 15 months and lose some of the immunity associated with that second dose, Wang said.

In addition to introducing COVID into China, the government has extended a baby immunization campaign into January instead of February. Even those babies born in 2018 have been included in the plan, as well as babies born after June 1, 2019.

The extended campaign is designed to boost immunization efforts on children aged 12 to 18 months. It is also open to all children in those ages except HIV and pregnant women.

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