More than six centuries after the Black Death wiped out more than a third of the population of Europe, a University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston team has shown that in experiments with rodents, their three vaccines effectively protected against the infection that causes the disease. Just as important, they did not cause side effects.
“If this research is borne out, a vaccine like this could negate future epidemics and pandemics,” said Ashok Chopra, a UTMB professor of microbiology and immunology and the study’s principal investigator. “Given the increasing threat, the optimal strategy for protecting people is through vaccination.”
The plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, can be cured with antibiotics if drugs are started soon after infection. Without prompt treatment – initial symptoms can resemble the flu – it is nearly always fatal.
In an online paper last month in the journal NPJ Vaccines, Chopra’s team reported on the vaccines’ use against pneumonic plague, the most virulent type of the disease and the one that spreads through airborne transmission. Chopra said they also work against bubonic plague, the type most associated with the 14th century pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people.
A copy of the study is here. The good news is that the plague is relatively rare – only a few thousand cases worldwide per year – but it’s very nasty and fatal if untreated in time. It’s also the case that a resistant strain of this bacteria can be weaponized, so yeah, an effective vaccine would be nice. Keep up the good work, y’all.