EDITORIAL: Vaccine search is prompting innovation
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EDITORIAL: Vaccine search is prompting innovation

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The search for a vaccine for the coronavirus is going on at a furious pace. Predictions of when one could be available range from later this year to two to three years. We’re optimistic, believing sooner rather than later.

But simply developing the vaccine will not solve the COVID-19 problem. The vaccine will have to be manufactured in vast quantities, and then comes the real challenge: Getting people in this country and around the world vaccinated.

Just how do we get billions of people vaccinated? No one method is likely to work everywhere, but Guizhi "Julian" Zhu, Ph.D., at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy has a proposal that seems to us worthy of strong consideration: sending the vaccine to your mailbox in the form of a patch.

If successful, his design for a vaccine patch offers a number of advantages over standard vaccinations, Zhu said.

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For example, it would be relatively simple to send vaccines directly to people by using the mail system -- each vaccine patch is about the size of a little fingernail and would fit easily inside an envelope.

Another plus: Since the patches would be easy to apply, the method would reduce the need for people to travel to health care centers, many of which have been overburdened during the pandemic. This would minimize risk to the people most at risk for the disease, who are older and sicker than the general population, as well as to vital health care workers.

"People, no matter who they are, can apply the patch to their own arm. And that's it. People are vaccinated."

Zhu's design looks similar to nicotine patches used in smoking-cessation products. But it works very differently.

Nicotine patches allow chemicals to seep through the skin. But that is not a practical approach for vaccines. Instead, Zhu's design uses more than a hundred polymer microneedles -- each as thin as a human hair -- on each patch to get through the skin.

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"It's not painful, not like a syringe," Zhu added.

These microneedles would dispense harmless synthetic fragments of the virus embedded in a protective ball of nanoparticles that dissolves once it enters the body. The fragments, while doing no harm themselves, would teach the body's defense system to recognize and attack any real COVID-19 viruses that appear.

Zhu's research, funded in part by the Department of Pharmaceutics and VCU's Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences, was one of the first 20 proposals to receive grants from the VCU COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.

"This is the kind of impactful research the program is designed to support and the kind of inventive thinking that will help us successfully fight the novel coronavirus," said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU's vice president for research and innovation. "The microneedle patch could potentially change the delivery of other vaccines now typically administered in a medical setting."

So could the patches be ready by the time a vaccine is developed?

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"It's our best hope that we can test to confirm this [design] within the next six months," Zhu said. If the tests are successful, the next step would be to make plans to manufacture the patches when a vaccine is ready and prepare for clinical testing.

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