Coronavirus Vaccine Nasal Spray Offers Hope To Needle Phobics

A team at Lancaster University hope their vaccine alternative will also reduce transmission.

While most of the nation pins its hope on the coronavirus vaccine as a route out of the pandemic, Michelle Turner has mixed emotions.

As a science teacher in a secondary school, Turner knows she has a rational brain. But put her in the same room as someone holding a needle and she admits all logic goes out the window as she has a total meltdown.

“The moment a needle comes anywhere near me, I just flip my lid and start screaming, flinching, swearing and kicking out. It is like an out-of-body experience,” she tells HuffPost UK.

Her needle phobia has only got worse with time. ”When I was pregnant with my daughter, it got to the point where the midwife said it was completely unethical to try and take blood from someone who got so distressed,” says Turner, 35, who lives in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.

She was 35 weeks pregnant when her consultant asked to see her bloods and was horrified they hadn’t been done. Feeling huge guilt that her needle fear might compromise her baby’s safety, Turner instructed medics to ignore any protests she made and take her blood anyway.

“I told them I would be crying and screaming at them to get away from me but they should just get the blood test done in any way they could,” she recalls. “I had a nurse on each arm pinning me down and my husband was sitting on my legs to stop me getting up. I was screaming and swearing at the poor doctor. I was hysterical.”

With an epidural out of the question, Turner gave birth to her daughter Rosie, now four, by C-section and asked to be completely “knocked out”, knowing she wouldn’t be able to cope with any medical intervention while conscious. Even now, if Turner has an injection or blood test, her GP gives her medication and uses a needle while she is asleep.

This presents a bigger problem when it comes to the Covid-19 vaccine.

Michelle Turner with daughter Rosie, four
Michelle Turner with daughter Rosie, four

“My logical mind says: ’Of course I will have the vaccine as that’s the sensible thing to do. Sitting here, thinking about it rationally, I tell myself that I just need to suck it up and get it done,” says Turner of the Covid-19 jab.

“But I know deep down that in reality I will get really distressed in the run-up to having the vaccine and not be able to sleep the night before. Then I will get tired and emotional on the day and react badly to the prospect of having it.”

Torn between wanting the vaccine when her turn comes, but knowing her needle phobia will get in the way, Turner started researching alternatives. “I’d had a nasal spray for things in the past and had even asked if I could have the flu vaccine by nasal spray but was told that was only for children,” she says.

To her joy, Turner discovered that researchers at Lancaster University are developing a nasal spray vaccine for coronavirus which has already been successfully tested on animals and will soon move on to human trials.

It it ends up being approved for use in the UK – and beyond – this alternative Covid-19 vaccine could be welcomed by more than just needle phobics.

Dr Muhammad Munir, a virologist at Lancaster University, says his team have been working actively on developing the nasal vaccine since March 2020.

Yet, even he hadn’t considered how welcome the prospect of a nasal spray vaccination would be to those suffering from needle phobia – until people started contacting him, asking about trials and when it might be ready.

“When we started working on this, our primary objective was to design a vaccine to block the transmission of the virus,” Dr Munir tells HuffPost UK.

The coronavirus vaccines already in circulation aim to save many lives, but we are yet to find out in full about their efficiency in stopping transmission and spread of the virus, he says (though a new pre-print study suggests the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine may have a “substantial effect” on transmission).

“We should not assume that having coronavirus vaccines that will save lives will also stop the spread of Covid-19,” says Dr Munir. “If we manage to vaccinate around 75% of the world population, it will slow the transmission of the virus – but that will take years.”

Researchers at Lancaster University have developed a coronavirus vaccine nasal spray
Researchers at Lancaster University have developed a coronavirus vaccine nasal spray

From the off, the Lancaster team wanted to develop a vaccine that also blocked the spread of coronavirus. And as the nose is the predominant entry point into the body for Covid-19, they started working on the basis that a nasal spray could be the best route to block the virus.

When scientists around the world first began working on coronavirus vaccines, there was limited genetic information about the virus, explains Dr Munir. Now we know more, vaccines can be “better tamed” to the data we have, he says.

In fact, Lancaster’s researchers had successfully engineered their first Covid-19 nasal vaccine as early as April 2020, and administered two doses of it in animal trials – the first stage of vaccine development – from July to September, before spending the rest of the year analysing the data.

While phase one and phase two of human trials can be conducted in the UK, they will need to go overseas for phase three, as most people in the UK will have been vaccinated. Their aim: for the spray to be available by November or December 2021.

Dr Munir and immunologists Dr John Worthington and Dr Lucy Jackdon-Jones, also from Lancaster University, have collaborated with researchers at the Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas to investigate the effectiveness of their new vaccine – and initial results look promising.

“We found it completely protected the animals from shedding the virus which causes the transmission of it,” says Dr Munir of trials on hamsters. ”This means the immunisation of the upper respiratory tract through a nasal spray can prevent individuals from spreading the virus and developing infections elsewhere in the body.”

Early indications from the trials also suggest that unlike coronavirus vaccines injected into the body, which do not start offering protection for about two weeks, the nasal spray appears to work more quickly.

“When a vaccine is injected through an intramuscular route like the arm, it is taken up by our immune system and it then starts producing antibodies,” explains Dr Munir. “These then reach to the upper respiratory tract and nose through the bloodstream which takes about two weeks.”

Within four days of the nasal spray being administered in the animal trials, researchers detected significant antibodies and T cell responses.

“Both of these are important to block the replication of the virus,” he says

The team is also working on making this nasal spray vaccine suitable for children for whom there are currently no approved coronavirus vaccines.

“While we know that children are not as severely affected by the illness, they do transmit Covid-19 and spread the infection. If we want to completely stamp down this pandemic, ultimately, we will need to immunise children,” says Dr Munir. “We already have the success story of the influenza vaccine being given to children through the nose so we are confident our approach will work.”

Those developing the nasal spray also hope it could be a low cost vaccination alternative for the developing world – especially as it can be scaled up through the existing infrastructure used to make and distribute the flu virus vaccine.

“This vaccine is produced in chicken eggs so this allows us to make many doses in a single egg in a relatively short space of time,” says Dr Munir. This allows scalability and more importantly, it means the existing infrastructure for flu vaccines can be used without building new factories.”

Building new infrastructure and training new people are the major stumbling blocks for new vaccines, he explains. “But the influenza vaccine is already produced in many developing and poorer countries so that means this vaccine can also be produced there.”

The nasal spray coronavirus vaccine developed at Lancaster University is produced in eggs in a similar way to the flu vaccine
The nasal spray coronavirus vaccine developed at Lancaster University is produced in eggs in a similar way to the flu vaccine

The vaccine team at Lancaster are now in the process of making up doses and hope to begin their human trials soon.

One woman who definitely wants to be front of the queue when it comes to signing up for a human trial is Turner, who tells HuffPost UK she is desperate not to pass on her fear of needles to her daughter but cannot even be in the same room when Rosie gets childhood jabs.

“When I told my husband I really wanted to be involved in a human trial for a coronavirus vaccine nasal spray, he asked whether I wasn’t worried about something going wrong during a trial,” she says. “But I have every faith in the experts and I don’t even care if anything goes wrong with the human trial.

“I would rather grow an extra arm than have a needle go anywhere near me!”