Old vaccines for new infections: Exploiting innate immunity to control COVID-19 and prevent future pandemics

Konstantin Chumakov, Michael S. Avidan, Christine S. Benn, Stefano M. Bertozzi, Lawrence Blatt, Angela Y. Chang, Dean T. Jamison, Shabaana A. Khader, Shyam Kottilil, Mihai G. Netea, Annie Sparrow, Robert C. Gallo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


The COVID-19 pandemic triggered an unparalleled pursuit of vaccines to induce specific adaptive immunity, based on virus-neutralizing antibodies and T cell responses. Although several vaccines have been developed just a year after SARS-CoV-2 emerged in late 2019, global deployment will take months or even years. Meanwhile, the virus continues to take a severe toll on human life and exact substantial economic costs. Innate immunity is fundamental to mammalian host defense capacity to combat infections. Innate immune responses, triggered by a family of pattern recognition receptors, induce interferons and other cytokines and activate both myeloid and lymphoid immune cells to provide protection against a wide range of pathogens. Epidemiological and biological evidence suggests that the live-attenuated vaccines (LAV) targeting tuberculosis, measles, and polio induce protective innate immunity by a newly described form of immunological memory termed “trained immunity.” An LAV designed to induce adaptive immunity targeting a particular pathogen may also induce innate immunity that mitigates other infectious diseases, including COVID-19, as well as future pandemic threats. Deployment of existing LAVs early in pandemics could complement the development of specific vaccines, bridging the protection gap until specific vaccines arrive. The broad protection induced by LAVs would not be compromised by potential antigenic drift (immune escape) that can render viruses resistant to specific vaccines. LAVs might offer an essential tool to “bend the pandemic curve,” averting the exhaustion of public health resources and preventing needless deaths and may also have therapeutic benefits if used for postexposure prophylaxis of disease.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2101718118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number21
StatePublished - May 25 2021


  • Interferon
  • Nonspecific effects of live vaccines
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Trained immunity


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