ST. LOUIS — The science behind India’s new nasal vaccine for COVID-19 has its roots in St. Louis.
India-based drug company Bharat Biotech announced Tuesday that its nasal vaccine had received emergency approval. The vaccine technology was licensed from Washington University.
Dr. Michael Diamond, a Washington University professor and viral immunologist, said he began working on the vaccine in the spring of 2020 with fellow Washington University professor Dr. David Curiel. The world’s scientific community was just mobilizing on its massive, urgent search for methods to treat and prevent the new coronavirus.
Diamond and Curiel knew many other researchers were racing to develop vaccines, but they didn’t see anyone else pursuing oral or nasal vaccines.
Their work is now making its public debut nearly two years after the injectable products made by Pfizer, Moderna and others. But it could become a strong tool in the fight against COVID-19. In an interview in 2020, Curiel recalled Albert Sabin’s oral polio vaccine, which came several years after Jonas Salk’s injectable vaccine but proved to be safer and more effective.
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The new vaccine doesn’t require the ultra-cold storage needed for Pfizer’s shot. It is stored between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. And because it is administered through the nose, it doesn’t produce the biohazard waste of needles and syringes.
The nasal vaccine may also have an advantage when it comes to reducing spread, Diamond said: It hasn’t been proven in humans, but researchers theorize the nasal vaccines could actually reduce infection in the upper airway, leading to shorter infections and less transmission.
Unlike the mRNA-based vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, the nasal vaccine is made from a deactivated cold virus — “basically like a dummy virus particle,” Diamond said. Scientists deleted the genes that allow the cold virus to replicate, then inserted the spike gene from the virus that causes COVID-19. When administered as a vaccine, it triggers an immune response that protects the recipient against COVID-19.
The Washington University researchers tested the vaccines in mice, hamsters and primates. Bharat Biotech formulated the vaccine for humans, put it into nasal drops and tested the vaccine in a Phase 3 trial of about 3,100 participants.
Bharat Biotech has not released the data from that trial.
Researchers at multiple universities in the U.S. and abroad are studying similar COVID-19 vaccine candidates. On Sunday, CanSino Biologics announced that an inhaled version of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine had been approved for use in China. Iran and Russia have also approved nasal and oral vaccines, according to Nature.
Nasal vaccines aren’t a new concept. The nasal flu vaccine, FluMist, has been used in the U.S. since 2003. But they still aren’t common.
In the future, Diamond said, researchers could look to develop nasal vaccines for any number of rhinoviruses and coronaviruses as well as common “nuisance” upper respiratory infections. A clear candidate would be respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which can cause serious illness in infants and older adults.
“You could think about any number of respiratory viruses,” he said. “RSV is obviously a big target.”
The nasal vaccine’s approval comes as the U.S. rolls out doses of the updated COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which have been modified to specifically target the most recent variants of the virus.
And a similar update for the nasal vaccines may already be on the way.
“We’ve already done it,” Diamond said. “We’re testing them now.”