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The MMR Vaccine Might Offer Some Protection Against Severe COVID-19

A white female child getting a shot from a Black female healthcare worker; both are wearing face masks.

 bogdankosanovic/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • A new study has found that people with higher mumps antibody levels were more likely to have less severe or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 infection. Conversely, people with lower mumps antibody levels were more likely to experience more severe COVID-19 cases.
  • People can develop mumps antibodies if they are exposed to or have the illness, but many people develop antibodies because they receive the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine as children.
  • More research is needed to prove that the MMR vaccine has a protective effect against COVID-19.

As the world faces a slow start to the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, some researchers have suggested that older vaccines might provide temporary protection. One study from this past November suggests there might be a link between mumps antibodies (which many people acquire through vaccination) and less severe COVID-19.

Jeffrey E. Gold, president of the World Organization and lead author of the new study, tells Verywell that he was interested in looking at the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine after noticing differences in COVID-19 death rates in countries with large-scale revaccination programs for measles.

What Is the MMR Vaccine?

The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is a routine childhood vaccination. The first shot is recommended between the ages of 12 to 15 months, and the second between 4 and 6 years of age. The vaccine can be given to children up to 12 years of age.

If adults do not have immunity, they can get an MMR "booster" shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most adults born before 1957 were exposed to measles, mumps, and/or rubella naturally and do not need a vaccine.

One notable example of the difference in death rates and MMR vaccination efforts in Venezuela. The country recently gained control of a large measles outbreak through a country-wide vaccination campaign geared toward nine million children between 6 months to 15 years.

Gold says that delivering 13 million doses of the MMR vaccine was unmatched with vaccination efforts in neighboring countries such as Colombia and Brazil. By 2019, Venezuela had reduced the number of deaths by 91%—reporting only 548 cases and three deaths.

Gold noticed that increased MMR vaccination appeared to be associated with decreased COVID-19 deaths. “Venezuela has had only 39 deaths per million from COVID-19," he says. "On the other hand, its immediate neighbors Colombia and Brazil have each had 957 deaths per million and 986 deaths per million respectively.”

To test this theory, his team looked at MMR antibody levels in people who had the MMR vaccines and whether they appeared to offer protection from COVID-19.

MMR Antibody Levels and COVID-19 Infection Severity

For the study, which was published in mBio (the journal for the American Society for Microbiology) the researchers recruited a total of 80 participants who had recently recovered from COVD-19.

The participants were divided into two groups based on whether they received MMR antibodies through infection or immunization. Of the participants, 50 had the MMR vaccine. The other 30 received antibodies after being exposed to measles, mumps, or rubella.

The researchers used a titers test to assess each participants' antibody levels for each of the three diseases. Next, they compared the number of antibodies to the severity of the participant’s COVID-19 infection.

The results showed that mumps antibodies—but not rubella or measles—were predictive of the severity of COVID-19 cases.

Participants with a high concentration of mumps antibodies were more likely to be asymptomatic or have less severe COVID-19 infection than people with a low concentration. In fact, having a low concentration of mumps antibodies was associated with moderate and severe COVID-19 infection.

Children vs. Adults

The findings were consistent among people of all ages. To look at the frequency of COVID-19 cases by age, the researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and found that children were seven times less likely to develop COVID-19.

Positive COVID-19 cases in children and young adults started to slowly increase by age 5, then increased sharply at age 14. The peak number of cases was at age 21.

When looking at the participants' MMR vaccination history, the concentration of mumps antibodies appeared to decrease around 14 years of age. “This makes sense, though, since mumps IgG [antibody] titers decline predictably and steadily over time,” Gold says. “As such, we believe they can serve as a proxy measure of overall MMR II vaccine persistence.”

However, some older adults did have high mumps antibody levels. The researchers suggest this may have been due to MMR vaccines as children or booster shots given as adults.

Do Adults Need MMR Boosters?

The study's findings fall short of recommending adult booster shots. Gold stresses that more clinical trials need to be completed and show successful results. There is currently a clinical trial to see if the MMR vaccine can prevent COVID-19 in 30,000 healthcare workers who are at high risk of repeated exposure to the virus.

Based on the findings, the researchers suggest that the MMR vaccine may give cross-protective immunity against COVID-19. However, it’s important to note that the observations were purely correlational and, at the moment, do not prove that MMR vaccines directly affect COVID-19.

MMR vaccines are considered relatively safe with few side effects. However, Gold says that the results of the study do not suggest that people could get an MMR vaccine in place of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Even if MMR is shown through clinical trials to offer some level of protection against COVID-19," Gold says. "It is doubtful it would provide anything close to the level of protection the Pfizer, Moderna, or other COVID-19 vaccines are already proven to provide.”

What This Means For You

New research suggests that having mumps antibodies through receiving a childhood MMR vaccine or adult booster shot might offer some protection against severe COVID-19 illness. However, it is not a replacement for a COVID-19 vaccine.

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Article Sources
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  1. Gold JE, Baumgartl WH, Okyay RA, Licht WE, Fidel PL, Noverr MC, et al. Analysis of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) titers of recovered COVID-19 patients. Mbio, 11(6): 11:e02628-20. doi:10.1128/mBio .02628-20.

  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). MMR vaccination - what you should know. Updated March 28, 2019.

  3. Pan American Health Organization. Measles outbreak in Venezuela is under control.

  4. National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. CROWN CORONATION: COVID-19 research outcomes worldwide network for CORONAvirus prevenTION (CROWN CORONA). Updated November 23, 2020.