Letter from Dr. Stephen Kahn about urgent COVID-19 research on BCG vaccine

Dear Abundance network,

This is certainly an unprecedented challenge we are experiencing. I hope you and all of your loved ones are managing to stay both physically and emotionally healthy.

Since the first week of March, the Abundance Foundation has been doing everything we can to support research on a potentially game-changing COVID-19 medication. We are ready to take it to the next level, and I am reaching out now to harness the collective wisdom and support of our incredible friends, colleagues, and network of partners. 

I implicitly trust Chief Abundance Partner, Dr. Megan Murray, who leads this research effort and is the Director of Harvard’s Global Health Research Core. I’ve admired her leadership throughout the decade of work we’ve done together: proving the accuracy of rapid Ebola diagnostics in Sierra Leone and proving the Cholera vaccine’s effectiveness amidst the epidemic in Haiti. That research, which was published in The Lancet, fundamentally changed Cholera control paradigms worldwide and resulted in the establishment of a vaccine stockpile that now delivers more than ten million doses of cholera vaccine annually to prevent and control epidemics.

I believe in Dr. Murray’s COVID-19 research because it studies the promise of the most widely used vaccine in the world, which is called BCG. Within months, Megan could conclusively determine BCG’s ability to prevent infection and severe disease from COVID-19. The world already has the production and delivery capability to administer 100 million doses per year, so rapidly scaling for global vaccination to save lives is certainly possible.

BCG’s safety profile is well understood from its century of use, and BCG already has strong science suggesting efficacy against a wide range of infectious diseases, ranging from malaria to yellow fever. In addition to its established efficacy against tuberculosis in young children, recent studies clearly show that South African adolescents who received BCG had a three-fold reduction in non-TB respiratory infections. The crucial missing piece now is the insight into BCG’s efficacy against the novel Coronavirus.

Dr. Megan Murray at work

The Abundance Foundation has already committed $500,000 to Dr. Murray’s work, with nearly half of that amount focused on her COVID-19 work. However, this is just a fraction of the funds required for a definitive, randomized controlled trial, involving health care workers in Boston and Peru and nursing home residents in Taiwan.

This is research that is often hard to fund because there is not as much profit to be made as there are lives to be saved. The vaccine — which has been in production since the 1920s — doesn’t have the potential profit motive that could compel some to invest in the needed R&D budgets. Even though this entire study will cost well below three million dollars — less than 5% of the typical clinical study — we can’t rely on the usual mechanisms for funding this crucial, time-sensitive, and exceedingly cost-effective research.

Billions of dollars are being spent right now to fund the investigation of new drugs and vaccines specific for COVID-19. While these are important studies, it will likely take nearly a year for any new drug to be proven sufficiently non-toxic and effective for selective use outside of research studies; longer for general use in wealthy countries, and an inordinate time before there will be widespread global use. In contrast, BCG is already primed for worldwide distribution and use.

When the Abundance Foundation supported Dr. Murray’s Ebola and Cholera work, we had an outsized ROI over less nimble funders, because they missed crucial windows due to their bureaucratic hurdles. I believe that other funders – including the National Institutes of Health – will eventually recognize how crucial Dr. Murray’s research is; the problem is that we don’t have time to wait.  

Abundance has been working with Dr. Megan Murray on researching BCG’s efficacy against COVID-19 since the first week of March and I believe this work has the potential to change the course of this global pandemic. In order to best leverage our support, we’re calling on our network to help make this happen and mobilize support.

Can we count on you to share this with your network, or if it is within your capacity, donate to the Abundance COVID-19 Response Fund? You can donate to the fund here to help advance Dr. Murray’s research and support of front line health care workers in some of the most vulnerable communities battling COVID-19. Every contribution makes a difference, and your support of our work is, as always, crucial to its success. Thank you.


Stephen Kahn, M.D.

President, Abundance Foundation