Scientists race to develop next generation of COVID vaccines

  • By Joe Palca/NPR

(Washington) – The three COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States are safe and effective and were made in record time.

But they aren’t ideal.

An ideal vaccine — besides being safe and effective — would have a few other desirable characteristics, says Deborah Fuller, a vaccine researcher at the University of Washington.

Such a vaccine would be “administered in a single shot, be room temperature stable, work in all demographics and, even pushed beyond that, ideally be self-administered,” she says.

Now, researchers are racing to develop the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines, utilizing a variety of innovative technologies to produce more convenient and more potent options. Some of the new vaccines are already being tested in volunteers and could even be available for distribution in the next year or so.

Scientists are exploring one set of changes that should be popular with people who don’t like needles.

“We wanted to develop a platform technology where we could easily give a vaccine, and obviously the easiest format to give would be a tablet,” says Sean Tucker, chief scientific officer at Vaxart.

The COVID-19 vaccine that Vaxart is developing is similar to Johnson & Johnson’s in that it uses a harmless virus to deliver instructions to cells to make proteins that will prompt an immune response to the coronavirus.

But instead of putting the delivery virus in a liquid, Vaxart freeze-dries it, turning into a powder that can be formulated into a pill that can be stored at room temperature.

Another vaccine that could be self-administered is a nasal spray vaccine. Frances Lund, chair of the microbiology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is working on that kind of vaccine with the biotech company Altimmune. She says that when you give people a vaccine by injection, the protection is systemic — that is, it works throughout the body.

By contrast, an intranasal vaccine induces two kinds of immunity, Lund says. You still get the systemic protection, she says, “but you will also get immunity directly at the site where you put that vaccine.”

That makes it harder for the coronavirus to sneak in through the nose.

Researchers also are testing whether the tablet and nasal spray could be a single dose.

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