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IOWA CITY — With new COVID-19 cases rising again in the United States — with variants spreading quickly and many people hesitant or unable to get vaccinated — University of Iowa researchers are aiding national efforts to curb the disease with tools like an experimental nasal vaccine and gathering information to increase youth inoculations.
In partnership with the University of Georgia, a UI team recently published promising findings showing a single-dose inhaled COVID-19 vaccine fully protected mice against lethal infections and also blocked animal-to-animal transmission. Those findings — published this month in the journal “Science Advances” — could lead to a clinical trial in humans this fall, according to Paul McCray, pediatrics-pulmonary professor in the UI Department of Microbiology and Immunology, who co-authored the intranasal vaccine study.
“The goal is to test its effectiveness in people, now that we have promising results in animal models,” McCray said.
The animal models involved in the intranasal vaccine study were the UI contribution to the research, which began early last year when the pandemic was still new.
“My lab had previously developed an animal model for SARS,” McCray said. “And because SARS-CoV-2 uses the same receptor, we could use that same mouse model to study the effectiveness of this vaccine in mice.”
Approval for human use — even if only on an emergency basis — could increase vaccination rates both across the country and around the world, he said.
“The currently available vaccines against COVID-19 are very successful, but the majority of the world’s population is still unvaccinated and there is a critical need for more vaccines that are easy to use and effective at stopping disease and transmission,” McCray said.
Unlike the vaccines in circulation that require injections, this vaccine a nose spray like those used to prevent flu. It uses a harmless virus to deliver the coronavirus spike protein aimed at stimulating a protective immune response. That harmless virus is similar to common cold viruses and doesn’t cause serious illness.
Mucosal cells lining nasal passage and airways are the primary entryway for most COVID-19 infections, potentially giving a nasal vaccine an edge, McCray said.
“That may be advantage for a virus that causes a respiratory tract infection,” he said. “So, in addition to stimulating this systemic response, it also stimulate local responses in the lining of the lungs, and that may make it harder for the virus to infect you.”
If eventually approved, the nasal vaccine could be easier to distribute more widely and to administer to people.
“This vaccine platform, compared to some things, is simpler to manufacture,” McCray said, noting it doesn’t need extremely-cold storage, involves just one dose and doesn't require a syringe.
“If you think about where we are in the pandemic, most people in the world haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated,” he said. “In some areas of the world, issues related to refrigeration are significant. And even having all the needles and syringes and everything to do it could be an impediment. So this approach may have some advantages.”
The University of Georgia has been developing the vaccine platform for more than 20 years, according to co-leader of the study and infectious diseases professor Biao He. And the nose-spray platform could help appease those avoiding vaccination due to a fear of needles.
“Needle phobia is a real thing — not only in children,” McCray said.
But children — or adolescents specifically — are one group needing vaccine attention, according to another team of UI researchers that collaborated with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a survey gauging attitudes about 12- to 15-year-olds getting the vaccine.
The survey, conducted just before the mid-May Food and Drug Administration’s expanded emergency use authorization of the vaccine for adolescents, found only half of the 1,022 sampled parents would “definitely” or “probably” get their children vaccinated.
The rate was similar among a national sample of 985 adolescents age 13 to 17, according to the survey conducted by UI assistant professor of internal medicine Aaron Scherer and a team of researchers from the UI College of Public Health, CDC and the Rand Corp.
That, Scherer said in a statement, is “yet another barrier to getting high enough levels of community immunity to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.”
The survey — published July 9 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Report — asked respondents not only about their adolescent vaccination intentions but what factors would increase their likelihood to vaccinate. The most commonly stated technique to make a difference with youth vaccines was have more information about safety and efficacy.
Those surveyed also identified primary care providers and health officials as their most-trusted sources for that information. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended eligible children get vaccinated and stated COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing severe disease and death from the disease. They also have been shown to decrease transmission of virus.
“Understanding how parents of adolescents think about the COVID-19 vaccine gives us insight into how we can encourage COVID-19 vaccinations in adolescents, including what messages or interventions might be effective,” according to UI community and behavioral health associate professor Natoshia Askelson.
“Getting adolescents vaccinated will be key to keeping kids safe as they go back to school in the fall.”
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