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  • While COVID-19 vaccines have been very effective at helping people avoid hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, they have not been as successful at stopping symptomatic infection.
  • Now researchers are in the early stages of seeing if a nasal spray can stop the disease.
  • Early studies in mice have shown that a nasal spray may help stop the virus from infecting cells.

Over two years into the pandemic, researchers are still searching for new and better ways to help people avoid COVID-19.

While COVID-19 vaccines and boosters have been helpful at protecting people from severe hospitalization and death, they have been less effective at preventing symptomatic cases of the disease.

Now researchers are looking at novel ways to keep COVID-19 from infecting human cells.

Researchers at Cornell University have been testing a nasal spray that blocks COVID-19 infection. Their study discovered a small molecule that, if sprayed into the nose, may help prevent COVID-19 from infecting cells.

The study is still in its early stages and is currently only being tested in mice. But experts are hopeful that this type of study may help lead to better protection against the virus.

The nasal spray releases a molecule that may help stop the virus from attaching to cells in the nose and respiratory tract.

The researchers found that a molecule, N-0385, can both protect against infection in healthy subjects and ease symptoms in patients if used within 12 hours of exposure to COVID-19.

The coronavirus attacks cells with its spike protein. This protein helps the virus gain access to human cells. To do so it binds to a receptor on the healthy cells. The team found a small group of molecules, including the N-0385, that might be able to prevent the spike protein from attaching to the cells in their studies on mice.

All the tests on the lab mice showed that the introduced molecule stopped key symptoms of the COVID-19 infection in mice.

The molecule was developed in collaboration with a team from Universite de Sherbrooke in Quebec.

“The problem with the [vaccine] shots is that they are not affecting transmission. What they are doing is amazing because they prevent severe disease, which is the whole point. But it would be even better if we could prevent transmission,” said Dr. Jennifer Lighter, pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone. “With the nasal spray, what you can imagine is that it starts working quicker in a localized area. There is hope that your mucosal immunity would rev up quicker and would be able to kill the virus before it became a breakthrough infection.”

Experts are quick to point out that there is not enough evidence yet that this will work in humans or become widely available. But this research could help lead to better preventive treatments sometime in the future.

“First of all, this is a really neat idea. Could one use something that could be an over-the-counter medication, or one that is easily applied by an individual, prevent getting COVID-19 at all, or curtail its seriousness very quickly? Those are the two ideas,” said Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Health Policy, Professor Division of Infectious Diseases, Vanderbilt University. “But does it work for people? The authors of this study are enthusiastic but it’s a big if.”

Schaffner elaborated that if we are trying to prevent or treat COVID-19, we do not know what the daily dose is, how often to spray it into a nose, etc.

“On the safety side, it’s good that it did not make any mice sick, but what will it do to a human’s nose? Will it be red? Will there be inflammation? Who knows what it will do,” he added.

Another issue is that the respiratory tract in the mouse is very short. In humans, it is much longer. It raises questions about whether or not the spray will get to the back of the throat, the nasopharynx, and the upper airway to treat the infection.

“You have to try it in people. It’s wonderful to know about this, but we need to look at the human clinical trial to see how it works,” Schaffner said.

Nasal spray vaccines have already been developed to treat other respiratory diseases, including the seasonal flu.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these sprays for the 2021-2022 season are designed to protect against four flu viruses.

The nasal spray for COVID-19 would work differently than one for the flu.

In order to determine how humans respond to the COVID-19 spray, testing has to be moved from mice to humans, which takes a considerable amount of investment and time.

Currently, EBVIA Therapeutics, Inc. is raising funds so human trials can begin. If these trials are successful they are hopeful they can move to distribution to the wider public.

“The reason why the mRNA vaccines became so quickly available was because there was so much funding. We were able to do many steps [to make an approved vaccine] simultaneously,” said Lighter. “Now that there are available and safe vaccines, all resources are not being donated to getting alternative effective vaccines.”

The study authors hope that if funding and testing are successful, the spray could be available to the public in six months.

Lighter said she expects it would likely be closer to a year before the nasal was widely available to the public, and that’s only if human trials are successful.