Apr 25, 2023 - Health

Lyme disease vaccine could be coming soon

Illustration of ticks taking over the globe

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

More than two decades after a promising vaccine for Lyme disease was pulled from the market, more tools to protect against the tick-borne illness —including a new shot — are on the horizon.

Why it matters: There's worldwide concern about how climate change is helping drive the proliferation of ticks and transforming Lyme disease from a regional summertime nuisance into a year-round health threat that can damage the nervous system and require several weeks of intravenous antibiotic therapy.

  • "Untreated, Lyme disease can be very serious," Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a professor at George Washington University, told Axios Today. "Some people develop debilitating symptoms that really impact their lives."

The big picture: Even though several Lyme disease vaccines are available for dogs, humans haven't had an option since LYMERix — made by the former SmithKline Beecham — was pulled from the market in 2002 due to low consumer demand tied to reports of arthritis and other adverse events and anti-vaccine sentiment.

  • "The FDA found insufficient evidence to support a causal relationship between the reported adverse effects and the vaccine and continued to permit use of the vaccine," researchers wrote in Epidemiology & Infection in 2007 examining what happened.
  • "However, the public's perception of potential risks, heavily influenced by the negative press coverage and limited awareness of the benefits of the vaccine, decreased consumer demand for the vaccine."
  • That left the public without alternatives except for antibiotics like doxycycline after a tick bite, while drugmakers begged off new shots, fearing market risk, Nadine Bowden of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) told Axios.
  • "Is it worth the investment and worth the risk?" she said.

That could all change in the next couple of years. Earlier this month, Moderna announced two novel mRNA vaccine candidates against Lyme disease in its pipeline.

  • Another vaccine candidate, VLA15, from Pfizer and its partner Valneva is already in late-stage clinical trials, and enrolling trial participants, including children as young as five.
  • The companies hit a snag in February when they had to toss the results of about half of their clinical trial participants due to problems in how the study was run by a third-party operator.
  • The companies nonetheless say they still could apply for Food and Drug Administration authorization as early as 2025.

What to watch: Researchers are exploring a number of other ideas to prevent Lyme disease, including a human monoclonal antibody designed to be used as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for Lyme disease.

  • Researchers also are studying whether to inoculate mice in areas with high tick populations, in the hope of passing the resulting immunity on to the ticks themselves.
  • Other scientists are trying to perfect more sensitive tests that go beyond targeting the virus itself to biomarkers the body releases when Lyme disease is present.
  • Ten teams advanced to the second round of the LymeX Diagnostics Prize, sponsored in partnership between HHS and the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, to accelerate effective diagnostic tools toward FDA review. The winners are expected to be announced in December.

The bottom line: For now, the best way to protect yourself is to use insect repellent, wear clothing that covers your arms and legs when in tick-infested areas and check for ticks when you get back.

  • But after years of relying on such preventive steps, an age of advanced drugs and vaccines could be nigh.

Thinking about getting a Lyme disease vaccine if it becomes available? Tell us more by filling out this form. (Some responses may be featured in future Axios newsletters and on Axios.com.)

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