This One Vaccine Could End the COVID Pandemic, Experts Say

One expert says it might limit both coronavirus transmission and infection.

Most of us saw COVID vaccinations as a light at the end of the tunnel when they first arrived in the U.S., but over the past year, the pandemic has persisted amid the rise of the fast-spreading Delta variant and a significant drop in vaccination rates. Now, health experts and officials are exploring new options to try to stop the spread of COVID for good, like vaccine mandates, reinstated mask restrictions, and booster shots. But some experts say they're holding out hope that the end of the pandemic will arrive with a different vaccine altogether.

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Marty Moore, PhD, the chief executive officer of Meissa Vaccines, recently told Business Insider that a nasal vaccine, also known as an intranasal vaccine, could be the answer to getting the country back to normal. "An intranasal vaccine could help bring an end to the pandemic and help give us true control over SARS-CoV-2 by limiting infection and transmission," Moore explained. "We shouldn't settle for a new normal. We can get back to the old normal."

The main difference between the three COVID vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. and a nasal vaccine is that the latter might also be able to stop virus transmission and mild infections. The current COVID shots have been designed to protect a person's vital organs, like the lungs and the heart, from severe infection, but they don't always protect against transmission and breakthrough cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccinated people may have lower levels of spread than unvaccinated people, but they can still transmit the virus to other people if they become infected.

During an infectious disease conference for IDWeek, Céline Gounder, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, explained that people vaccinated against COVID are still vulnerable to mild breakthrough infections because available vaccines do not help people develop mucosal immunity against COVID. Mucosal immunity protects against infection that can occur through moist tissues in the nose, eyes, and mouth. It might also be able to stop all transmission that happens in your nostrils.

"Very early on during that honeymoon initially after vaccination when your neutralizing antibodies are at their highest, you get a bit of a spillover effect into the upper airway," Gounder explained, per Business Insider. But long-term, there is no effect. Instead, experts need to "find another way to elicit a mucosal response to complement the systemic immune response," Gounder said, which could happen with an intranasal vaccine.

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Nasal vaccines, which do not require a needle, could also help raise vaccination levels. "There are quite a few people who would rather have drops in the nose than the needle. So I think an intranasal vaccine could reach not all, but many vaccine-hesitant people," Moore told Business Insider. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), anywhere from 11.5 million to 66 million people in the U.S. might be unvaccinated due to a fear of needles.

But some experts caution against putting too much hope in nasal vaccines. Currently, GoodRx says there is only one nasal spray vaccine available in the country: a flu vaccine called FluMist Quadrivalent. FluMist contains live, weakened strains of the flu virus and trigger an immune response in your nose. However, certain groups of people, like pregnant individuals and those with weakened immune systems, cannot use vaccines that contain live virus because it could potentially cause an infection.

And as far as efforts to get a nasal vaccine for COVID go, many infectious disease experts have warned that the possibility is still somewhat distant. Gounder said that there are currently no intranasal vaccines in late-stage trials, so according to GoodRx, the possibility of a nasal spray vaccine is not likely before 2022. Moore's company, Meissa, and another U.S. company, Codagenix, are developing nasal COVID vaccines, but both are only in early-stage human trials.

According to Moore, Meissa's early clinical data has indicated that unvaccinated patients given a few drops of their nasal vaccine in each nostril end up with average mucosal antibody levels that are slightly higher than people who have natural immunity from COVID infection.

"[The data] suggests that we can deliver immunity that's like natural infection, but we can do it safely," Moore told Business Insider. "Our aim is to be the transmission-blocking COVID vaccine."

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