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UH researchers developing nasal COVID-19 vaccine candidate

"One of the blind spots for systemic vaccines is the upper areas of the nostrils," says UH professor Dr. Navin Varadarajan.

HOUSTON — Right now if you want to get the COVID-19 vaccine, you have to get a shot -- two for Moderna and Pfizer. But researchers at the University of Houston are working on an alternative.

"People who naturally get infected with COVID-19 and thankfully recover, when they get an immune response, they cover everything," explains Dr. Navin Varadarajan, M.D. Anderson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UH. "They cover systemic immunity, but they also have what is known as mucosal immunity. "

'Mucosal' references mucosa, tissue that lines your nose, mouth and lungs. Dr. Varadarajan says mucosal immunity doesn’t happen when you get one of the currently available vaccines.

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"One of the blind spots for systemic vaccines is the upper areas of the nostrils," he says. 

Coronavirus is a respiratory virus, so your nostrils are an easy entry for it. If you got the shot and don’t have mucosal immunity, the virus can still get in. That’s how breakthrough infections happen.

According to peer-reviewed research published in the journal iScience, the nasal vaccine would close that door, mimicking natural infections.

"It prevents it right at the doorstep," says Dr. Varadarajan.

That accomplished one goal he had while developing the vaccine. Another was to make it easy to use: a nasal spray similar to FLUMIST, the nasal spray flu vaccine.

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"The worst thing in a pandemic is to have 30,000 people lining up to get a vaccine," Dr. Varadarajan says. "It seems like you want to spread the virus before you get the vaccine. So long-term vision would be a concept of sending something for people to administer themselves."

This vaccine is also easy to store, requiring nothing colder than a standard household refrigerator.

"We want to make a vaccine that can be disseminated essentially worldwide with minimal refrigeration," says Dr. Varadarajan.

Dr. Varadarajan's biotech company AuraVax Thrapeutics is working on manufacturing the intranasal vaccine. The company will coordinate with the FDA with the goal of starting Phase 1 human trials as soon as May or June 2022.

Read more about the research here.