Australia’s ‘holy grail’ COVID nasal spray


A blockbuster nasal spray that not only stops the virus that causes COVID-19 but also prevents the common cold and influenza is being developed by Australian scientists.

Researchers behind the drug have described it as "amazing" and said it had the potential to combat not just COVID-19 but all future pandemics.

A trial published in Biorxiv today found the drug delivered a 96 per cent reduction in the amount of virus that causes COVID-19 in ferrets.

The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was carried out by Public Health England, the UK equivalent of our CSIRO.

The nasal spray doesn't target a specific virus but instead primes the immune system to fight off any type of virus, said Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett, head of Viral Immunology at the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett. Picture: David Swift
Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett. Picture: David Swift

The nasal spray is not a treatment or a vaccine but a preventative that works by stimulating a natural process in our innate immune system, the body's first line of defence against pathogens.

The immune stimulant is cheap to produce, works within 24 hours, much faster than a vaccine, and could be used twice a week to prevent infection with coronavirus.

It uses a synthetic molecule called INNA-051 discovered six years ago by Doherty Institute scientist Professor David Jackson. Development began long before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Australian biotech company Ena Respiratory said the vaccine could be made in Australia and supplied to the rest of the world.

In recent years it tested effective at reducing and preventing all the major respiratory viruses including influenza, rhinovirus (which causes the common cold) Respiratory syncytial (sin-city-al) virus (RSV) and coronavirus.

It was "entirely possible" the drug could even work against HIV and the virus that causes cervical cancer, but it had not yet been tested on these, Professor Bartlett said.

Ena Respiratory Managing Director Dr Christophe Demaison said if humans respond in a similar way to ferrets the body would rapidly eliminate the virus, ensuring the disease does not progress beyond mild symptoms.

"In addition, the rapidity of this response means that the infected individuals are unlikely to pass it on, meaning a swift halt to community transmission," he said.

Human safety trials will begin in Australia in December and human trials that will test whether the spray stops COVID-19 in humans will begin in mid-2021.


Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett from Hunter Medical Research Institute. Picture: David Swift
Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett from Hunter Medical Research Institute. Picture: David Swift

Explaining how it works, immunologist and Ena Respiratory Board Director Chris Smith told News Corp: "Our bodies are acutely tuned to recognise infection and this drug simulates an infection and tells the body there is an infection coming, be prepared".

"By doing that, the body's already awakened and in an antiviral state in the nose and the throat, which is where coronavirus first takes a hold," he said.

The spray could be used by frontline health workers to protect themselves from infection.

When a resident in an aged care facility was diagnosed with COVID-19 all the other residents and staff in the facility could be given the nasal spray to reduce their risk of infection, Mr Smith said.

In the future the nasal spray could be used in conjunction with a COVID-19 vaccine.

People would get a vaccine to prompt their body to develop a long term immune response to COVID-19 but use the nasal spray to provide extra protection.

It is unclear yet the length of protection a vaccine will provide. If it only lasted a few months the nasal spray would add another level of protection.

Originally published as Australia's 'holy grail' COVID nasal spray