The plague is often thought of as an ancient illness, yet cases actually continue to occur today in rural areas of Africa, Asia and America.
Now, researchers from the Oxford Vaccine Group have announced that they are testing a vaccine against the plague, based on the coronavirus vaccine.
The trial will see 40 healthy adults receive the vaccine, in order to assess any possible side effects and determine how well it induces protective antibody and T cell responses.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said: ‘The coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of vaccines to defend populations from the threat caused by bacteria and viruses.
‘Plague threatened the world in several horrific waves over past millennia, and, even today, outbreaks continue to disrupt communities.
‘A new vaccine to prevent plague is important for them and for our health security.’
Researchers from the Oxford Vaccine Group have announced that they are testing a vaccine against the plague, based on the coronavirus vaccine (stock image)
What is the plague?
Plague is a disease caused by infection with Yersinia pestis, which is a type of bacteria.
In humans, this infection can cause high fevers, swollen lymph nodes, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, a bloodstream infection and, if left untreated, death.
It is spread by the bite of an infected flea, handling an animal infected with plague or from inhaling respiratory droplets from an infected person.
Arguably the most well-known example of the plague is the Black Death, which killed hundreds of millions of people worldwide in the 1300s.
The Black Death was a bubonic plague – one of the three different types, alongside pneumonic and septicaemic.
Worryingly, if left untreated, the bubonic form has a 30-60 per cent fatality rate, while the pneumonic form is almost always fatal.
Both the bubonic and pneumonic forms can develop into the third form (septicaemia) – a life-threatening condition of the blood.
The Oxford Vaccine Group explained: ‘Plague is a disease caused by infection with Yersinia pestis, which is a type of bacteria.
‘In humans, this infection can cause high fevers, swollen lymph nodes, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, a bloodstream infection and, if left untreated, death.
‘It is spread by the bite of an infected flea, handling an animal infected with plague or from inhaling respiratory droplets from an infected person.’
Cases occur annually in rural areas of Africa, Asia and America, with 3,248 cases reported globally from 2010 to 2015, including 584 deaths.
While plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics if treated early, this is often not possible in rural areas.
Instead, the researchers say a vaccine would be much more effective.
Plague is a disease caused by infection with Yersinia pestis, which is a type of bacteria (artist’s impression pictured)
Christine Rollier, Associate Professor of Vaccinology at the Oxford Vaccine Group, explained: ‘Athough antibiotics can be used to treat plague, many areas experiencing outbreaks are very remote locations.
‘In such areas, an effective vaccine could offer a successful prevention strategy to combat the disease.’
The plague vaccine is based on the ChAdOx1 adenovirus viral vector platform used in the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
It is either given intramuscularly, or can also be given orally under the tongue.
The researchers are now recruiting 40 healthy 18-55 year-olds to take part in the Phase 1 trial.
‘If you are aged 18 to 55 years old and in good health, then you may be eligible to take part in the study,’ they said.
‘We will provide reimbursement up to £630 for your time, inconvenience and travel. The total study participation time is up to 1 year.’
THE CAUSE BEHIND EUROPE’S BUBONIC PLAGUES
The plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was the cause of some of the world’s deadliest pandemics, including the Justinian Plague, the Black Death, and the major epidemics that swept through China in the late 1800s.
The disease continues to affect populations around the world today.
The Black Death of 1348 famously killed half of the people in London within 18 months, with bodies piled five-deep in mass graves.
When the Great Plague of 1665 hit, a fifth of people in London died, with victims shut in their homes and a red cross painted on the door with the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’.
The pandemic spread from Europe through the 14th and 19th centuries – thought to come from fleas which fed on infected rats before biting humans and passing the bacteria to them.
But modern experts challenge the dominant view that rats caused the incurable disease.
Experts point out that rats were not that common in northern Europe, which was hit equally hard by plague as the rest of Europe, and that the plague spread faster than humans might have been exposed to their fleas.
Most people would have had their own fleas and lice, when the plague arrived in Europe in 1346, because they bathed much less often.