The emergence of Beijing family genotypes of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and low-level protection by bacille Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccines: is there a link?


Fekadu Abebe, University of Oslo, International Community Health, 1130 Blindern, 317 Oslo, Norway, Oslo N-0317.


The world is confronted with major tuberculosis (TB) outbreaks at a time when the protection of bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine has become inconsistent and controversial. Major TB outbreaks are caused by a group of genetically similar strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) strains, including the Beijing family genotypes. The Beijing family genotypes exhibit important pathogenic features such high virulence, multi-drug resistance and exogenous reinfection. These family strains have developed mechanisms that modulate/suppress immune responses by the host, such as inhibition of apoptosis of infected macrophages, diminished production of interleukin (IL)-2, interferon (IFN)-γ, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α and elevated levels of IL-10 and IL-18. They demonstrate distinct expression of proteins, such as several species of α-crystallin (a known Mtb virulence factor), but decreased expression of some antigens such as heat shock protein of 65 kDa, phosphate transport subunit S and a 47-kDa protein. In addition, the Beijing family strains specifically produce a highly bioactive lipid (a polyketide synthase)-derived phenolic glycolipid. This altered expression of proteins/glycolipids may be important factors underlying the success of the Beijing family strains. The Beijing family strains are speculated to have originated from South-east Asia, where BCG vaccination has been used for more than 60 years. The hypothesis that mass BCG vaccination may have been a selective factor that favoured genotypic and phenotypic characteristic acquired by the Beijing family strains is discussed.