No proof MMR shots mitigate COVID-19, but stream steady at shot clinics

By , Daily Memphian Published: July 22, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Early in the pandemic, a chorus of researchers called for a national vaccination campaign for measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR as the shot is called in doctors’ offices.

Live virus vaccines like in the MMR tend to activate the immune system in ways that dead viruses, say in the influenza vaccine, do not.

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Dr. Bill West, who founded the West Cancer Clinic, took notice. Then there was the series of well-known U.S. virologists who in several scientific journals (Science and mBio) starting in mid-June, posed the question: Could existing live vaccines dampen COVID-19?

“Two separate studies have looked at the rate of MMR vaccination in foreign countries and the severity of their illness with COVID,” West said, noting that caseloads in both showed lighter infection rates than what other nations have seen.

“There is something about a live vaccination that has a much broader effect than say, vaccinating just for the flu with a dead virus,” he said.

“It’s a little like wakening the whole immune system. ‘Hey, we’ve seen something alive. Let’s be better prepared if another one comes along.’ ”

By early July, local walk-in shot clinics were seeing an uptick in demand for the MMR vaccine.

“The CDC has said people need their MMR against measles, mumps and rubella,” said Deborah Overall, vice president at The Shot Nurse and a registered nurse. “We haven’t seen as much response to that recommendation as to the fact that this possibly helps with COVID.

“Naturally, that is going to bring people in,” she said.

Overall and many of the clients have read the journal articles and while there is no proof, it’s some hope.

“Adults of all ages are coming, hoping that the vaccine will help dampen the inflammation associated with COVID,” Overall said.

Walgreens and CVS also offer the vaccine.

Dr. Chris Hanson, a Memphis pediatrician, says the thinking is “a really early hypothesis” with no specific data on COVID-19.

“Our general recommendations haven’t changed; routine immunizations would be kept up, but there’s no recommendation for an ‘extra’ dose of MMR.”

But some researchers, including well-known U.S. virologists who wrote the June 12, 2020, Science article, say the MMR could act as a preventive against the body’s response to COVID-19, especially the inflammation and pneumonia.

And based on hypotheses from research in their labs, researchers Dr. Paul Fidel Jr., department chair, Oral and Craniofacial Biology at Louisiana State University Health Science School of Dentistry, and Dr. Mairi Noverr, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, said days later in mBio, the journal for the American Society of Microbiology, that MMR vaccinations could be especially important for health care workers easily exposed to COVID-19.

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While their clinical trial is in process, Fidel later was quoted saying, “I don’t think it’s going to hurt anybody to have an MMR vaccine that would protect against the measles, mumps, and rubella with this potential added benefit of helping against COVID-19.”

Because children around the world often receive live immunizations, including the MMR and oral polio vaccine and the live bacteria vaccine for tuberculosis given in Europe and Africa, researchers suggest it could at least partially explain why COVID-19 appears to affect them less.

Other evidence includes the milder symptoms among the 955 sailors who tested positive on the U.S.S. Roosevelt this spring. All U.S. Navy recruits receive the MMR vaccination.

In Hong Kong, a measles outbreak in 2018-2019 was followed with a national MMR immunization campaign in 2019.

“Then with COVID and 7.5 million people, Hong Kong has 1,200 cases,” West said. “Now, they quickly went to masks, and they have great hospitals because they saw SARS at the turn of the century. But it looked like that was some sort of pre-existing herd immunity, and that is the idea. That is what sparked the interest in this.”

While he repeatedly says the evidence is circumstantial, West got the vaccine. So did his wife, Carole West. And so have many members of their Sunday School class who received an email from West on July 2 with copies of the journal articles under the subject line: “Rationale for MMR or oral polio vaccine to protect against Covid-19.”

Over the weeks, hundreds of others across the city have received forwarded copies of the email.

While Overall agrees there is no scientific basis for getting the shot, other than to prevent measles, mumps or rubella, “it certainly is not going to hurt anyone.”

Pandemic disrupts vaccination schedules; 700 need shots in Frayser alone

Insurance typically covers the cost. For those without insurance, the vaccine at The Shot Nurse costs $100.

The MMR vaccine was developed in 1971. People born before then may have immunity because they had one or more of the infections.

West says the antibodies the body builds up diminish over time.

“The reason those of us who are older (West is 73) have a harder time with COVID is our immune response is perhaps slower. Even if we had these diseases as children, it’s been a long time,” he said.

Leading U.S. virologists, he says, called for a national campaign for the MMR vaccine to help with COVID-19 until a specific vaccine is available.

“But it was never taken up at the CDC,” he said. “I suppose there is some concern, ‘We don’t want to trigger a great rush on the MMR since the children all need it.’”

West also says that genome sequencing on rubella and measles at the University of Oxford in England shows the bonding sites are 30% equal to bonding on the novel coronavirus, which could suggest the MMR vaccine could help the body produce antibodies against the coronavirus.

“Putting it altogether, it’s all circumstantial, but millions of people are vaccinated with MMR every year. It’s not expensive, and it’s available,” West said.

Dr. Manoj Jain, associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, who is the infectious disease physician advising Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, is asked frequently by patients for his opinion on the issue.

“I say, ‘At present, there isn’t enough evidence. And if there was strong enough evidence that it was somewhat or highly protective, then the WHO (World Health Organization) and CDC would have recommended this, especially in developing countries.'

“I don’t see this as a substitute for the vaccine being developed for COVID,” Jain said.

Nor can he recommend it as prophylactic to mitigate disease severity.

“There’s no evidence that it helps. It’s hard to tell. We just don’t have any evidence.”

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Dr. Bill West West Cancer Clinic Dr. Manoj Deborah Overall The Shot Nurse Dr. Chris Hanson
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.

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