A needle-free Covid-19 vaccine is on track to become a “significant addition” to the global effort to stop the spread, according to scientists.
In a newly published study in the Science Advances journal, Australian researchers say they have developed a 1cm x 1cm skin patch that has been found to be “superior to traditional needle-and-syringe vaccination”.
The “microneedle patch” is a small plastic chip that is “administered with the click of a small, round applicator device” to the upper arm, explained the US-based Smithsonian magazine. The vaccine is then deposited via 5,000 tiny spikes, each about a quarter of a millimetre long.
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The spikes are also made of plastic and “are so tiny that they don’t draw blood or trigger the nerve endings that sense pain”, the mag said.
Similar patches are being developed to enable diabetics to administer insulin and could “revolutionise” care, as the BBC reported after the technology was first unveiled in 2018.
The University of Queensland team behind the Covid vaccine patch believe it may give greater immune protection than traditional needle injections. Tests on mice found that those treated with the patch developed “more coronavirus antibodies than those injected with the vaccine and were completely protected from getting sick, even with a single dose”, reported New Scientist.
The patch is also a good option for people with a needle phobia – a fear felt by at least one in ten people, according to the NHS.
University of Oxford researchers reported in June that a survey of more than 15,000 UK adults had found that those with an injection phobia were twice as likely to say they were hesitant to get a Covid vaccine.
The patches would also be easier to distribute as they can be stored at room temperature, unlike current Covid vaccines, which have to be refrigerated. Experts hope the patches “could eventually be sent through the mail or even delivered by drones in hard-to-reach places without reliable cold storage”, said Smithsonian mag.
And since the patches can be self-administered, they could be ideal for communities without access to trained medical staff too.
“We wanted to come up with an alternative that would be stable long enough to go that last mile, especially in resource-limited settings,” virologist David Muller, part of the team behind the development, told New Scientist.
The patch may have some side effects. Smithsonian said that “like any vaccine”, it may “leave your arm feeling sore because it delivers an agent that’s meant to stimulate an immune response”.
The patch “also produces some redness that usually goes away over the course of a few days”, the mag added.
Timeline for roll-out
The Covid-19 patches have only been tested on mice so far. Scientists and Massachusetts-based biotech company Vaxxas, which is manufacturing the patches and applicators, are aiming to begin human trials next year.
Although skin patch vaccines for Covid “may still be a few years away”, said Smithsonian mag, “many experts predict that the coronavirus will become endemic, and it’s possible that booster vaccines will be needed regularly.
“An easy-to-apply, shelf-stable vaccine option could help ensure that more of the world’s population is vaccinated.”
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