Could the COVID-19 vaccine shot eventually be replaced by a pill?

coronavirus vaccine pill oral
Photo via Jamie/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: May 26, 2021

Needle-weary folks could have some relief when getting their COVID-19 vaccinations in the near future. That’s because coronavirus vaccine pills are in the works through a handful of manufacturers. 

In particular, IosBio—a Sussex, England-based company—is working with California-based ImmunityBio to create the tablet (one of the developers, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, also happens to be a part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers).

According to the New Zealand Herald, the tablets have been shown to be “highly effective” in clinical trials with monkeys. Trials on people, specifically Americans, began in January. The Irish Post reports that IosBio has also created an injection version of its vaccine, which is undergoing second and third trials

Wayne Channon, chief executive of IosBio, told the Post that capsules would cut out healthcare workers in the administration of vaccines. That might be a boon to countries— like the U.S.— which are experiencing a shortage of healthcare staff to give the vaccine.

“With our capsule you wouldn’t need medical professionals to administer the vaccine,” Channon said. “You could send this out on Amazon Prime and have everyone vaccinated by Saturday.”

In early March, it was reported that a pill being developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP slowed down the virus in a person who had been infected with the coronavirus after a five-day treatment. It’s being compared to Tamiflu for those who are infected with influenza.

By late March, Pfizer had begun Stage 1 trials for a coronavirus vaccine pill that could be taken as soon as symptoms began. The Independent noted, “If the trial is successful, this could be the first early intervention for COVID of its kind that could prevent the worsening of symptoms.”

By April, 60 volunteers had begun trials for that pill, and it could be ready by the end of 2021.

But that doesn’t mean any of this is easy. As noted by Stat News, “As simple as that sounds, the process of actually developing new antiviral treatments is overwhelmingly complicated, even outside of a pandemic. Things can go disastrously wrong at countless steps along the way, whether drugs are too weak to stop the viral spread or too sloppy to be safe. And SARS-CoV-2 is consistently evolving, meaning scientists have to outfox natural selection itself to stay ahead of the game.”

In the meantime, other companies are designing a nasal spray option, while a Chinese company is beginning trials for a vaccine that can be inhaled.

The coronavirus vaccine pills are designed to withstand the heat and volatility of human stomachs, taking advantage of the mucous membranes of the intestinal tract. Channon told the Post that this method allows the vaccine to elicit mucosal immunity, “hitting the virus where it is.”

Another pill form of the COVID-19 vaccine from American manufacturer Vaxart began trials in September 2020. In late January, Vaxart announced that studies showed that hamsters that had received two doses of its oral vaccine had a “substantial reduction in lung inflammation as compared to unvaccinated hamsters.”

“The latest data from the SARS-CoV-2 Hamster Challenge Study reinforces our belief that our oral COVID-19 vaccine candidate shows great promise.” Andrei Floroiu, CEO of Vaxart, said in a statement. “Our oral vaccine could help fight the COVID-19 epidemic globally because it is stable at room temperature making it easier to transport, store, and administer than injectables. It may also appeal to those uncomfortable with injections.”

Read more on the coronavirus vaccines:

Sources: New Zealand Herald, Irish Post, Bio-Pharma Reporter, Reuters

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