Scientists push for development of intranasal COVID-19 vaccines

The best protection from COVID-19 will come from intranasally-delivered vaccines, due to the effectiveness of mucosal IgA antibodies, say researchers from the University at Buffalo.

Antibodies attacking coronavirus

A University at Buffalo, US scientist has reiterated that substantial immunity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus will only happen with a vaccine that can be delivered through the nose.

“The best protection against initial infection with the coronavirus, as well as transmission of it, as opposed to the development of COVID-19 disease, will be most effectively achieved by intranasal vaccines,” said Dr Michael Russell, professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and first author on a paper published last month in Frontiers in Immunology.

The reason, he said, is that the most robust immunity against COVID-19 comes about as a result of infection that takes place in the upper respiratory tract and the mouth and gives rise to mucosal immunity through the secretion of Immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies.

“That kind of immunity is not induced to any great extent by the existing injectable vaccines,” said Russell. However, he said mucosal immunity is exactly the kind of immunity that would protect against initial infection, instead of protecting against severe disease after infection, the goal of the current COVID-19 vaccines.

“It all results from a widespread lack of understanding of the operation of the mucosal immune system,” said Russell, “despite the fact that this has been known about for at least 40 years, but is poorly covered in most medical curricula.”

He said that evidence is accumulating that shows that mucosal IgA antibodies have a significant impact on acquisition of SARS-CoV-2, the subsequent course of disease and further transmission of the virus. 

Vaccines delivered through the nose would not only induce mucosal immunity and thus prevent individuals from becoming infected, but they could also suppress community spread, which results from the circulation of aerosol particles and droplets generated by these upper respiratory and oral secretions.

“Our main point, therefore, is that protection against initial infection (rather than protection against the development of COVID-19) and the onwards transmission of the virus will be more effectively achieved by intranasal vaccines,” said Russell. “In other words, the much-discussed and elusive accomplishment of herd immunity, which is not effectively generated by the existing injected vaccines, will be more likely to be achieved with mucosal immunity induced by intranasal vaccines.”

The paper also argues that despite the fact that antibody responses to COVID-19 have almost entirely focused on serum, the level of antibodies circulating in the blood does not reflect the antibody level in mucosal secretions. Meanwhile, mucosal IgA antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 antigens have been detected in the saliva, nasal fluids, tears, tracheo-bronchial secretions and even breast milk in infected individuals.

The authors conceded that while there have been numerous animal model trials launched to develop intranasal vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, many have not continued past the pre-clinical stage. In part, they explained, this might be due to inadequate understanding of how the human and animal mucosal immune systems differ.

“Mucosal IgA antibodies found in secretions are much more effective at viral neutralisation than circulating IgG antibodies, which are found in serum,” said Russell. “If even a fraction of the time, effort and resources that were applied to the development of the first generation of COVID vaccines was applied to intranasal vaccines, the world might be benefiting from a widely available intranasal COVID-19 vaccine right now.”

Related conditions

Related organisations

Related people