The BCG Atlas: Using data science to improve knowledge around a century old vaccine

Alice Zwerling & Samantha Lancione

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The The 3rd edition of the BCG World Atlas is now Live!

The Bacille-Calmette Guérin, or BCG vaccine as it is widely known, is a century old vaccine used to provide protection against tuberculosis (TB). With millions of doses administered in infancy worldwide every year since its initial use in 1921, BCG is the most widely given vaccine worldwide (1). Generally accepted to be effective at protecting against meningeal TB, a form of TB with high mortality among infants and small children, the efficacy of the BCG vaccine to protect against adult forms of TB has been controversial.  As a result, BCG vaccination practices vary widely between countries, over time and even within countries across state or provincial lines(2).  

The BCG World Atlas (www.bcgatlas.org), was established in 2011 as a web-based resource for clinicians, researchers and public health staff to quickly access details on different countries’ BCG vaccination practices and policies (3). Since its inception our team has maintained and updated the BCG Atlas despite limited resources and unique challenges, including dynamic policies that change over time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred interest around this century old vaccine, with studies suggesting that the BCG vaccine has non-specific immune boosting effects, which may provide some protection against the novel coronavirus (4,5). As global COVID-19 rates soared, several ecological studies emerged using data from the BCG World Atlas to assess potential associations between BCG vaccination policies and COVID-19.  Subsequently, at least 12 clinical trials have been initiated across the globe to assess BCG vaccination among health care workers, the elderly, and other high-risk groups (6–8). These studies have highlighted knowledge gaps in BCG vaccination policies and practices and the importance of updating national policy data over time.

In conjunction with Elsevier data scientists, the Estafet team led by Radoslav Kirkov developed the idea of a BCG Hackathon, a competition using machine learning to improve data gathering efforts for the BCG Atlas.  The Estafet team launched two different hackathons over the summer of 2020, with the help of the crowdsourcing machine learning platform Kaggle. The first part, which focused on identifying additional BCG policy data, concluded in September with a virtual awards ceremony, and a subsequent 2020 update of the BCG Atlas website. As a result of this exciting partnership, we are now able to update The BCG World Atlas website with a wealth of new data pertaining to BCG vaccine policy, practices and BCG vaccine strain usage, which is now live in its 3rd edition!  If you are looking for a way to be part of this exciting Hackathon, part 2 of the BCG Hackathon continues until the end of 2020; exploring the possible associations between BCG vaccine and COVID-19 infection and disease (https://www.kaggle.com/bcgvaccine/hackathon).

References

  1. WHO | BCG vaccine [Internet]. WHO. World Health Organization; Available from: https://www.who.int/biologicals/areas/vaccines/bcg/en/
  2. Zwerling A, Behr MA, Verma A, Brewer TF, Menzies D, Pai M. The BCG World Atlas: A Database of Global BCG Vaccination Policies and Practices. PLoS Med [Internet]. 2011 Mar 22;8(3). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3062527/
  3. The BCG world atlas: a new, open-access resource for clinicians and researchers - PubMed [Internet]. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21819321/
  4. Why an old TB vaccine is getting attention in the fight against Covid-19 [Internet]. STAT. 2020. Available from: https://www.statnews.com/2020/04/14/decades-old-tb-vaccine-attracts-attention-and-skepticism-as-a-potential-weapon-against-covid-19/
  5. Weiss S. Does the BCG vaccine work against coronavirus? We just don’t know. Wired UK [Internet]. 2020 Apr 15; Available from: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/bcg-vaccine-coronavirus-uk
  6. Aziz AB, Dembinski JL, Jahan Y. Debate on Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccination against COVID-19: Is it worth performing clinical trials? Biosaf Health. 2020 Sep;2(3):113–4.
  7. Canadian researchers begin clinical trials of tuberculosis vaccine for COVID-19 [Internet]. Coronavirus. 2020. Available from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/canadian-researchers-begin-clinical-trials-of-tuberculosis-vaccine-for-covid-19-1.5134233
  8. Editor ISS. Coronavirus: UK launches clinical trial of BCG vaccine. The Guardian [Internet].2020Oct10;Availablefrom:https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/10/coronavirus-uk-launches-clinical-trial-of-bcg-vaccine

 

 

 

Alice Zwerling

Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa

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