Needle-Free Covid Vaccines Are Being Trialled, But How Do They Work?

Future Covid vaccines could use air instead of needles.
The system in action
Cambridge University
The system in action

Scared of needles? Well, good news because future coronavirus boosters might be needle-free.

A trial is being launched of a new needle-free Covid-19 vaccine that could give “wide-ranging protection” against variants and future coronaviruses.

The University of Southampton has developed the new vaccine which uses a jet of air to push it through the skin rather than a needle.

Saul Faust, clinical chief investigator and director of the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility, said: “This isn’t simply ‘yet another’ coronavirus vaccine as it has both Covid-19 variants and future coronaviruses in its sights.

“This technology could give wide-ranging protection to huge numbers of people worldwide.”

While most existing Covid-19 vaccines use the sequence of the RNA for the spike protein from the first samples of the virus found in January 2020, the DIOSvax technology used for the new vaccine aims to predict how the virus could mutate, allowing it to target emerging variants.

Professor Jonathan Heeney, at the University of Cambridge who developed the vaccine with research company DIOSynVax, said: “As new variants emerge and immunity begins to wane we need newer technologies.

“It’s vital that we continue to develop new generation vaccine candidates ready to help keep us safe from the next virus threats. Our vaccine is innovative, both in terms of the way it primes the immune system to respond with a broader protective response to coronaviruses, and how it is delivered.

“Crucially, it is the first step towards a universal coronavirus vaccine we are developing, protecting us not just from Covid-19 variants but from future coronaviruses.”

Volunteers from the Southampton area who have had two doses of an existing vaccine but not a booster are being sought for the trial, for which they will be paid £785.

The team behind the air vaccine booster
Cambridge University
The team behind the air vaccine booster

How does it work?

While most Covid-19 vaccines use the sequence of the RNA for the virus spike protein from the first isolated samples of the Covid-19 virus in January 2020, this new DIOSvax technology uses predictive methods to encode antigens like the spike protein that mimic the wider family of coronavirus antigens to give protection.

This device uses a blast of air to push the vaccine into the skin, where it will begin to act on the immune system.

Essentially, the vaccine uses a vector - a delivery system - that includes the genetic code for key parts of the virus’s spike protein. Once this vector gets inside our immune cells, the immune cells decode the information and use it to prime the immune system. This means that the immune system now knows to look out for that part of spike protein - if it spots it, then it can mount an attack to clear the body of the virus.

So to put it in layman terms, it’s like someone sending you an email (the vector) about a scam (the virus) involving phone calls pretending to be from your bank (the spike protein). When you read that email, you know to watch out for this. Then, the next time you receive a phone call that’s supposedly from your bank, you know to ignore it.

The vaccine can be delivered pain-free without a needle into the skin, using the new device, which delivers the vaccine in less than a tenth of a second by spring-powered jet injection.

When will it be released?

The first trials of DIOS-CoVax are being delivered by the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility (CRF). The trial team are calling for healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 50 in the Southampton area. Participants must have had both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, but not their booster.

Once the safety trials pass, the vaccine will go through two more clinical trials to ensure there are no adverse side effects.

As these are large trials with people from a wide range of backgrounds, it could be some time before this system is available to the public.