Could the MMR Vaccine Protect Against COVID-19? Global Trial Enrolls Healthcare Workers to Find Out

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology in collaboration with Washington University School of Medicine

    There’s one vaccine with nearly 50 years of proven safety that may strengthen the immune response to viral infections and possibly protect people from COVID-19. It’s the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. An international research network of physicians and scientists launched a clinical trial to evaluate whether MMR can protect front-line healthcare workers against infection from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

    Some St. Louis healthcare workers may be getting the MMR shot, years after their childhood booster, to see if the vaccine could protect them against COVID-19. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is the clinical coordinating center for the MMR vaccine trial enrolling up to 30,000 healthcare workers globally. The trial is co-led by Washington University, University College London and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, via the CROWN (COVID-19 Research Outcomes Worldwide Network) Collaborative and involves researchers from institutions in African, European and North American countries.

    It’s believed the MMR vaccine could broadly boost an individual’s immunity and prevent infection from SARS-CoV-2 for a limited period. This is because the vaccine carries small amounts of the live, weakened viruses that could train the body’s immune system to fight multiple pathogens.

    “If I say to you now, I’m going to run around Forest Park. If I’ve been training to run around Forest Park for a few weeks before, I would do much better running around Forest Park now. We similarly discovered that the immune system of the body actually does well when it’s trained to respond to infections. Where we’ve discovered this in particular is in relation to weakened organisms that are used as vaccine,” said one of the collaborative’s principal investigators, Michael S. Avidan, MBBCh, the Dr. Seymour and Rose T. Brown Professor and head of the Department of Anesthesiology at Washington University. 

    Avidan and co-investigator Mary Politi, PhD, a leader in health decision-making and a professor of surgery in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University, are evaluating whether the MMR vaccine can truly protect against COVID-19 by decreasing the number of infections and severity of infections. 

    “The immunity to the specific viruses of measles, mumps and rubella lasts a long time, hopefully a lifetime,” said Politi. “But (boosted immunity from MMR vaccine) to other viruses and other pathogens that you may be exposed to, that immune response is probably months to years. We don’t know exactly how long.” 

    The second reason the MMR vaccine may be effective is the similarities between the weakened viruses in the vaccine and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. All of these viruses have similar proteins on their surfaces that are involved in infecting cells in the body, so the researchers think that antibodies made in response to the MMR vaccine also may recognize and fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

    Researches want to learn whether the vaccine slows the spread of the virus and protects healthcare workers from developing COVID-19. They’ll also determine if it can reduce the severity of illness for those who do become infected.

    “We wanted to make sure we are preserving the people who would take care of everybody getting sick,” said Politi. “By focusing on people who are regularly exposed, we then get our data in a faster way.” 

    Study participants won’t know if they’re getting the vaccine or a placebo. Each participant will be followed for five months and the entire trial is expected to last about a year. 

    The MMR vaccine has been given safely to hundreds of millions of people around the world since it was approved nearly 50 years ago, and has successfully reduced the incidence of measles, mumps and rubella worldwide. Typically, the vaccine is given to children, with most getting two doses before age 6. If MMR works for COVID-19, it may become an available option sooner rather than later as safety is already proven.  

    Watch HEC Media’s video story! The video offers more information about the hope for the MMR vaccine in the fight against COVID-19. Watch extended interviews with Dr. Avidan and Dr. Politi as they discuss the data about the MMR vaccine and COVID-19, as well as other routine vaccines reviewed for possible protection against COVID-19. And hear why the investigators say it’s important for everyone to get their scheduled vaccinations, as well as the flu shot!