What can existing vaccines do for COVID-19? This is the question that Professor Hans Rasker, rheumatologist, asked himself at the beginning of the corona crisis. “Children were not, or scarcely, afflicted by it. Young adults and those up until their fifties were getting it in a less severe form. I thought that was crazy. I realized that people over fifty were most likely never vaccinated against measles. Maybe that vaccine, a manipulated virus, offers protection against COVID-19?”
The measles vaccine was developed in 1971 in the United States, along with the vaccine against mumps and rubella. “Since 1975, nearly all children in the Netherlands have been vaccinated with this vaccine. According to the World Health Organization, 86% of children worldwide receive this particular combination in their first year of life.”
Rasker delved into the literature and found all kinds of evidence that the measles vaccine did in fact offer protection against the earlier SARS virus, the precursor of the virus that causes COVID-19, and is also effective against other coronaviruses. “It seemed that no one else had come up with this idea.” He wrote an article in which he recommended that research be carried out into whether the vaccine offers protection to people in care, the elderly, and others who are at increased risk. “I was also wondering if there is any evidence that non-vaccinated people, such as those in the bible belt (the area where the Dutch Reformed Church is prominent, ed.), are at a greater risk.”
The article was rejected by the scientific journal he offered it to. That had to do with that there was not a virologist, but a rheumatologist as the author. Rasker: “Very understandable, but my article was mainly intended as a discussion paper.”
As a researcher, he has a whole range of publications and sideline activities to his name. He was a professor at the Dutch University of Twente and secretary of the International League of Associations for Rheumatology (ILAR). He is now emeritus professor. At the age of 81, he is still active and collaborates with researchers from Bangladesh, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
Why can existing vaccines be effective?
Rasker emphasizes that he is not a virologist, but that he does think logically in the main. “A human being is resistant to all kinds of viruses. COVID-19 is related to influenza, as in the common flu, but also to other diseases caused by viruses, such as yellow fever and measles. These viruses all invade human cells in a similar way and infect them. If you can prevent the virus from penetrating a human cell, you can prevent infection or reduce its severity.”
According to Rasker, the modified yellow fever vaccine is “incredibly interesting” because not only did they discover that it can be used to vaccinate hamsters against the pathogen that causes COVID-19, but that it also seems to work on 100% of those hamsters. “The vaccine is eighty years old and we know it inside out. We know it has only limited side effects. If it works on this new strain of the virus, then you are almost there. Millions of people are vaccinated against yellow fever every year. All you have to do is ratchet up the production a few notches.”
Always busy with research
Rasker is used to looking at the world with an inquisitive approach. “Whenever I see something that catches my eye, I ask myself: why is this and why is it like this?” Sometimes these questions become subjects for research. “As a rheumatologist, you are always busy with research.” There are more than two hundred different types of rheumatism, Rasker adds. “Some have to do with viruses, some with bacteria, some with other causes of disease, including autoimmune diseases. As a rheumatologist, you have to deal with the entire broad scope of medicine. Rheumatologists are essentially the last all-round specialists in the world.”
Research into what kind of rheumatism someone has is very important, Rasker states. “One disorder requires a completely different treatment than another and the prospects for a cure are quite different. Rheumatologists are also a bit like stamp collectors,” Rasker continues. “If you have five patients with a certain condition, then you publish on that. So that your colleagues can also recognize and treat these conditions.”
He refers to his strength as “lateral thinking”: “When everyone else is thinking straight ahead, I tend to think left or right.” For example, Rasker became interested in what the disease rheumatoid arthritis, a serious form of rheumatism that can cause severe joint disorders, does to the patient. “Those people are in pain, but that doesn’t appear to be their main complaint. In our research, we found that the worst thing for the patients is that they can’t do everything anymore and that they become dependent on others.”
That psychosocial side of rheumatism became one of his main areas of interest. From 1991 to 2004 he served as professor of psychosocial aspects of rheumatic diseases at the University of Twente. He is still attached to the university as professor emeritus because he publishes so much each year. “I’m not someone who just sits still. Physically, I am becoming a bit less active, but as long as my brain is still reasonably sound, I am enjoying myself.”