Coronavirus: US researchers develop possible vaccine with novel injection technology

Robert Delaney

Researchers at University of Pittsburgh reported that they are working on a possible novel coronavirus vaccine through a new injection technology, building on work they had already been undertaking on a vaccine for Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), a deadly coronavirus outbreak that was first reported in 2012.

In a paper published in EBioMedicine – a peer reviewed journal published by The Lancet – the researchers described their work toward an experimental vaccine that produced antibodies specific to Covid-19 when tested in mice.

The potential vaccine is delivered through a fingertip-sized patch of 400 tiny needles, which the researchers call microneedle arrays. The needles are made of proteins and sugars, which dissolve under the skin.

Like many potential Covid-19 vaccines, the University of Pittsburgh team’s candidate targets the coronavirus’s spike protein, a crown-like protein on the virus’s surface that binds with receptors on a host cell and gains entry to deliver the viral genome into the cell.

When administered to mice, the researchers found “significantly high” antibody responses to Sars-CoV-2 within two weeks, compared with levels taken before the microneedle array treatment. Sars-CoV-2 is scientific name for the coronavirus that causes the Covid-19 respiratory ailment.

The new microneedle array technology results in high concentrations of the vaccine in the skin that could decrease the required vaccine doses for “efficacious immunisation and substantially reduce both cost and toxicity”, according to the Pittsburgh team’s paper.

However, the efficacy of the antigens, or substances capable of stimulating an immune response, tested in the candidate vaccine in humans remains unknown.

Ruth Collins, an associate professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said that while the Pittsburgh team’s vaccine delivery technology may have an advantage over the “thousands” of other Covid-19 vaccine candidates, the jump from efficacy in mice to success in humans is the challenge that all of the potential vaccines face.

“The danger always remains for humans that the vaccine, when used to immunise … humans that haven’t seen the disease, runs the risk of actually aggravating the human response when the disease is encountered,” Collins said. “This is one of the most difficult aspects of vaccine development to anticipate.”

The University of Pittsburgh team’s report acknowledges the uncertainty.

“Even though it is still early to predict whether humans immunised with these vaccine candidates will have similar responses and be protected from Sars-CoV-2 or Mers-CoV infections, our studies demonstrate that development, production, and initial animal testing of clinically translatable [microneedle array] vaccine candidates against Sars-CoV-2 and other emerging infections can be rapidly accomplished,” they said in the report.

The University of Pittsburgh research team is taking the numerous steps before they can apply to the US Food and Drug Administration to start phase-1 clinical trials in humans.

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