Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Lyme disease is getting worse. But a new vaccine is on the way.

Photo of two ticks at the top of a test tube
An adult tick (R) is pictured beside a nymph (young tick) in a laboratory studying these carriers of Lyme disease. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP via Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • An estimated 300,000 Americans get Lyme disease every year.
  • A vaccine for Lyme produced in the 1990’s was off the market by 2002.
  • Growing awareness and rising infections of Lyme in the U.S. and Europe may increase interest in the vaccine now.
  • VLA15, the vaccine being produced by a group in France, may be available in just four or five years.

The bullseye rash is the classic — and dreaded — sign of Lyme disease, but not everyone sees it. As Lyme disease becomes more common, Stat reports that teams in France and at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are working on vaccines for Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread by deer ticks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hundreds of thousands of people get Lyme annually in the U.S., and that number has been increasing every year. If it’s caught early, the disease can be easily treated with antibiotics. But if it’s not treated, like if the person doesn’t develop the bull’s-eye, then it can lead to chronic issues like joint pain and heart palpitations, as well as nerve and memory problems, the Atlantic reports. A vaccine for Lyme disease called LYMErix was developed in the 1990s but was only available to people older than 15, required multiple injections and was linked to harmful side effects. It was pulled from the market in 2002 and poses a challenge for new Lyme vaccines entering on the market, Stat reports.

“There was a huge dampening of enthusiasm after LYMErix failed,” Sam Telford, a professor at Tufts University who helped run the LYMErix clinical trial, told Stat. “Companies said, ‘Look, we just don’t want to go there.’ There was a lot of negativity around making a new Lyme disease vaccine.”

The new product from France is VLA15, a vaccine being developed by a biotech company called Valneva. Unlike LYMErix, Valneva’s vaccine is being tested in people five-years-old and up and only requires one injection. VLA15 was fast-tracked by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 and, according to a press release, “had no associated safety concerns” after a clinical trial. Valneva is now planning another clinical trial of 15,000 people and hopes the vaccine will be available in four to five years, according to Stat.

The preventative being developed at the University of Massachusetts is not exactly a vaccine, but an injection of disease-targeting antibodies that could provide resistance to the bacteria immediately, instead of after days or weeks like a true vaccine.

These new medical advances may face some pushback from those who remember LYMErix, as well as the growing anti-vaccine movement. But growing awareness of Lyme disease suggests that there is also interest among people who want to protect themselves and their kids.

“Every manufacturer that has considered this since 2002 has judged that it’s unlikely that we’re going to make a profit on this vaccine,” Gregory Poland, the director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic, told the Atlantic. “In the second decade of the 21st century, you can protect your dog against Lyme disease, but not your children.”