There is repeated speculation on social media that pneumonia vaccination, might protect people against COVID-19.
This is not true.
Pneumonia is a swelling of the lungs that makes it difficult for the body to get enough oxygen. It can be caused by many different bacteria and viruses, including the novel coronavirus.
The vaccination which is currently used to protect older people from pneumonia target a type of bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. Unfortunately, this vaccine offers no protection against infection by a coronavirus.
It is possible that the vaccination could protect people with coronavirus from getting a Streptococcal pneumonia on top of COVID-19. As yet there is no advice on this from the body that advises UK health departments on immunisation (the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation).
Where did the story come from?
This claim has been swirling around for some weeks on social media and chat forums. Recently an American specialist in children’s infectious diseases discussed the claim on a YouTube video. She says we don’t yet know if it could help prevent complications of coronavirus, but that older people who would usually get the vaccine should continue to do so.
What is the basis for the claim?
Early reports from China in December 2019 described the first cases of a new type of pneumonia. This was later found to be caused by a novel coronavirus and became known as COVID-19. The virus spread and by March was declared a pandemic.
The fact that the virus can cause pneumonia led some people to jump to the conclusion that vaccination against pneumonia might offer protection. However, the existing pneumonia vaccine that is used in older people won’t work against coronavirus. It targets a common bacterial cause of pneumonia, called Streptococcus pneumoniae.
People often confuse diseases caused by bacteria and those caused by viruses. Bacteria are organisms which can live on and in our bodies, while viruses actually enter our cells and use them to make more of themselves.
Vaccines train our bodies’ immune systems to recognise and fight specific infections. A single vaccine targets a single type of bacteria or virus and won’t help the immune system to recognise and fight other different microorganisms. As the virus which causes COVID-19 is new we do not currently have a vaccine against it, but several different groups are trying to develop one.
When people are seriously ill with one infection, they can be more susceptible to catching other infections, which could include infections with Streptococcus pneumoniae. There have been suggestions that some patients who have died of COVID-19 may have died from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, and that this may be increasing the number of deaths in Italy.
However, we don’t yet have enough information to determine how common secondary infections with Streptococcus pneumoniae are in people with COVID-19, and if people who have been vaccinated have better outcomes.
What do trusted sources say?
The World Health Organization states clearly that vaccines against pneumonia don’t protect against COVID-19. It points out that this infection is completely new, and needs a completely novel type of vaccine. Urgent research work is underway to find one.
The WHO does note that although existing pneumonia vaccination won’t protect against COVID-19, it is recommended for protection against respiratory disease. In the UK and US, it is already recommended that all adults aged over 65 should be vaccinated against Streptococcus pneumoniae to prevent pneumonia.
Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser