Imagine: An antiviral inhaler that could protect you from the coronavirus. One puff a day that keeps COVID away?
If it sounds like a distant dream, wake up: A team of scientists from the University of California, San Francisco claim to have created it.
The scientists developed a tiny molecule that they say can latch onto SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and make it impossible for the virus to infect human cells. There’s a hell of a lot of testing left to go before their treatment reaches shelves, but the team suspects that a single puff from the inhaler every day could keep people safe until a vaccine is finally ready.
The actual protection comes from tiny proteins called nanobodies, considerably smaller versions of the antibodies that your body uses to fend off infections. According to the team’s research, which was shared online Monday but hasn’t yet been published in a journal, two of these nanobodies can latch onto the coronavirus’ spike protein, which prevents it from infecting a new cell.
A third nanobody — which is the main nanobody the team’s focusing on in their treatment — takes it a step further. Rather than merely blocking the spikes, it actually prevents the spikes from activating at all. In a press release about the work, the scientists compared it to binding the coronavirus up in a straightjacket.
Most teams working on antiviral treatments are trying to use antibodies rather than nanobodies. The UCSF team says nanobodies are a more realistic prospect, because they’re smaller. Their diminutive size makes them easier to manipulate in a lab setting, and helps them survive abuse, like the process of being turned into an aerosol, and loaded up into an inhaler thereafter.
If the treatment gets approved, the team says it will be “affordable.” And yet: A daily puff of antiviral meds will demand a very real financial and logistical commitment to create and distribute. It may help some people until we have a vaccine, but realistically, it’s hard to imagine new treatments as anything other than priced out of the most vulnerable populations’ reaches. Until that changes, the current technology we have in its place — one in which protection from COVID-19 is made available to all — stays the same: You, wearing a mask.
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READ MORE: ‘AeroNabs’ promise powerful, inhalable protection against COVID-19 [University of California, San Francisco]
More on coronavirus treatments: Scientists Test First COVID-19 Antibody Treatment on Humans