The study, which was limited to animals and has not yet been peer-reviewed, was assessed by several health experts at NYT’s request.
If the spray, which the scientists described as non-toxic and stable, is proved to work in humans, it could provide a new way of fighting the pandemic. A daily spritz up the nose would act like a vaccine. “Having something new that works against the coronavirus is exciting,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall, the chairman of immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study. “I could imagine this being part of the arsenal.” The work has been underway for months by scientists from Columbia University Medical Center in New York, Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Columbia University Medical Center.
The team would require additional funding to pursue clinical trials in humans. Dr. Anne Moscona, a paediatrician and microbiologist at Columbia and co-author of the study, said they had applied for a patent on the product, and she hoped Columbia University would approach the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed or large pharmaceutical companies that are seeking new ways to combat the coronavirus.
The spray attacks the virus directly. It contains a lipopeptide, a cholesterol particle linked to a chain of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. This particular lipopeptide exactly matches a stretch of amino acids in the spike protein of the virus, which the pathogen uses to attach to a human airway or lung cell.
Before a virus can inject its RNA into a cell, the spike must effectively unzip, exposing two chains of amino acids, in order to fuse to the cell wall. As the spike zips back up to complete the process, the lipopeptide in the spray inserts itself, latching on to one of the spike’s amino acid chains and preventing the virus from attaching. “It is like you are zipping a zipper but you put another zipper inside, so the two sides cannot meet,” said Matteo Porotto, a microbiologist at Columbia University and one of the paper’s authors. The work was described in a paper posted to the preprint server bioRxiv, and has been submitted to the journal Science for peer review. Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said the therapy looked “really promising.” “What I’d like to know now is how easy it is to scale production,” he said.
In the study, the spray was given to six ferrets, which were then divided into pairs and placed in three cages. Into each cage also went two ferrets that had been given a placebo spray and one ferret that had been deliberately infected with SARS-CoV-2 a day or two earlier.
Ferrets are used by scientists studying flu, SARS and other respiratory diseases because they can catch viruses through the nose much as humans do, although they also infect each other by contact with faeces or by scratching and biting. After 24 hours together, none of the sprayed ferrets caught the disease; all the placebo-group ferrets did.
Donald G McNeil Jr is a science reporter covering epidemics and diseases for NYT©2020
The New York Times