'A Tale of Two Vaccines'

Exactly one hundred years ago the first (and so far only) TB vaccine (BCG) was first successfully used on an infant. Currently somewhere around 350 million infants are vaccinated with it each year but it’s been well known for nearly half a century that the vaccine only provides short-term protection for them and provides next to none for older age groups. The shocking proof is in the pudding – a full century of use and appallingly around a quarter of the humankind is currently still harbouring the TB mycobacterium - all hosting a potentially deadly pathogen and all at risk of their latent infection reactivating.

What's more, after a hundred years it's still the only TB vaccine on the block.

Meanwhile, a combination of biomedical technology and political support has more recently demonstrated that an effective vaccine against a much less lethal infection (COVID-19) can actually be produced from scratch – not in a hundred years, though, BUT IN A HUNDRED DAYS.

But as we’ve written before, TB isn’t even currently considered an 'old' pandemic, despite it being estimated that nearly 2 million people lost their lives to it in 2020. (Incidentally, in the twelve months to December last year, that was only just less than the horrific number that was lost from COVID-19).

So how much money was thrown at this TB vaccine research (only invested in the research, note, not the cost of purchase)? And how much was thrown at developing a new TB vaccine in the same year?... US$117 million.

The next graphic shows this and other difference. It was $120 billion for COVID vaccine research, and $117 million for TB.

What a difference is made when a key word starts with a 'b' instead of an 'm' - in this case it implies that every life lost to TB is reckoned to be worth roughly a thousand times less than each lost to COVID-19.

What's more, we can unpack the numbers further and find these comparisons even harder to stomach: 500 days after the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was first identified (with 3.5 million lives lost) there were already 18 COVID vaccines in use worldwide (all with astonishing claims of protection); meanwhile more than 50,000 days (139 years) after the TB bacillus was first identified (and possibly half a billion lives lost in that period) there's still only one vaccine for TB - and it’s only effective for infants.


When called on to do so the leaders of our world are certainly happy to sound like they consider lives threatened by TB to be worth saving. In 2018 the unanimously committed at the UN to supporting TB research annually to the tune of US$2 billion (not $117 million, note). The problem is they continue to abjectly fail to follow up on their commitments.

It’s time for them to honour their commitments and start to catch up on the waste of a century by finally throwing meaningful money at TB vaccine research.

(with thanks to the Stop TB Partnership for the graphics)


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