As Covid-19 continues to evolve and mutate into more contagious strains, the world is looking for new ways to respond.
Doctors confirm current Covid-19 vaccines prevent severe disease and death but are less successful at stopping the spread of infection.
“Scientists are developing an Omicron-specific booster, and BA4 and BA5-specific boosters, but you know that process, they must finalize and test them, then get formal approval, so the exact timing is still unknown,” said Dan Shirley, the Medical Director of Infection Prevention at UW Health.
Scientists are working on a universal Covid vaccine to cover all possible strains, but that's expected to take years, and time fuels the challenge.
“The problem is cases still get passed around and then we get new variants,” said Dr. Shirley. “Inherently, new variants become more transmissible. One of the biggest differences from prior viruses and diseases we've developed vaccines for is that we didn't have to deal with this rapid switching of variants.”
Some researchers believe there's a way to slow the person-to-person spread and the resulting creation of new variants. They're testing a variety of Covid booster nasal sprays and oral tablets.
“That's how Covid-19 first gets into your system, and if we can stop it right when it gets there, as opposed to letting it get into your lungs and everywhere else, sometimes that's more effective in stopping it from taking hold and then spreading,” said Dr. Shirley.
“Theoretically, if we can get more of the antibodies right in the nose and the mouth, it gives you a more immediate response and more protection, and theoretically lowers the rate of transmission,” said pharmacist Hasham Zaibak, owner of Hayat Pharmacy.
In an early trial of one oral tablet called Vaxart, 46 percent of participants had an increase of antibodies in their nose after taking it. Doctors say it created a better defense for most variants, and the protection lasted about a year.
“The concept is good,” said Zaibak. “Now, the burden is on them to prove safety and efficacy.”
Research on these Covid nasals and oral vaccines do not have the same level of funding as injections, so they're not developing as quickly.
“The downside of nasal and oral vaccines is that typically not everybody can use them,” said Dr. Shirley.
That's because, in most cases, unlike Covid-19 shots, the sprays and tablets contain a weakened version of the virus itself. That makes them unsafe for pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.