Plague Vaccine Begins Human Trials

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Developed by the Oxford Vaccine Group, a new plague vaccine has begun phase 1 trials at the University of Oxford.

The plague might sound like a disease of medieval times, but the truth it still very much exists in today’s world. But thanks to the discovery of antibiotics, the disease isn’t as deadly anymore. However, it continues to claim lives and cause outbreaks across the world. Just last year, health officials in China reported an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the region. Therefore, researchers at the University of Oxford are now conducting phase 1 clinical trials for a newly developed plague vaccine.

Plague threatened the world in several horrific waves over past millennia, and, even today, outbreaks continue to disrupt communities. A new vaccine to prevent plague is important for them and for our health security.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group

Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the disease typically spreads by flea bites or handling infected animals. It has three forms: pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic. Bubonic plague is the most common form that presents with ‘buboes’ or inflamed lymph nodes. Perhaps it’s most well-known for causing the Black death – the world’s most fatal pandemic ever recorded. Starting in the 1300s, the plague pandemic wiped out 60 per cent of Europe’s population at the time.

However, cases of the plague continue to spring up even today. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally an estimated 600 cases occur per year. The majority of cases occur in Peru, Madagascar, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Although antibiotics are effective against all three forms of the disease, there is a threat of the bacteria developing antibiotic resistance. Moreover, antibiotic therapy only works if the case is diagnosed in time. This is not always possible in remote locations. Therefore, health officials rely on vaccination to prevent and control outbreaks.

Although antibiotics can be used to treat plague, many areas experiencing outbreaks are very remote locations. In such areas, an effective vaccine could offer a successful prevention strategy to combat the disease.

Christine Rollier, vaccinologist at the University of Oxford.

The new plague vaccine is based on the same technology as the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The intramuscular plague vaccine uses a genetically modified adenovirus, the adenoviral vector, to introduce the code for the pathogen’s protein into the cells. Once inside, the cells then start producing the protein. The immune system recognizes it as foreign and produces antibodies. Thus, evoking an immune response and preparing the cells for any future attacks by the bacteria.

The phase 1 trial has now begun and researchers are recruiting volunteers. It is expected to include 40 healthy adults aged 18 to 55 years, and go on for twelve months. The team aims to assess the vaccine’s safety and how well it evokes an immune response against the pathogen.

Source: The University of Oxford

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