BEIJING — The Chinese city of Shanghai on Wednesday began giving out an inhalable Covid-19 vaccine in what appears to be a world first.
The vaccine, a mist that is aspirated through the mouth, will be offered free as a booster dose to previously vaccinated people, according to an announcement on an official city social media account.
Scientists hope that such “needle-free” vaccines will make vaccination more accessible in countries with weak health systems because they are easier to administer. You can also convince people who don’t like an injection in the arm to get vaccinated.
China wants more people to get booster shots before easing tough pandemic restrictions that are slowing the economy and becoming increasingly out of sync with the rest of the world. By mid-October, 90% of Chinese were fully vaccinated and 57% had received a booster shot.
A video posted by a Chinese state-owned online media outlet showed people at a community health center putting the short nozzle of a translucent white cup in their mouths. The accompanying text states that after inhaling slowly, people hold their breath for five seconds, with the entire process being completed in 20 seconds.
“It was like drinking a cup of milk tea,” a Shanghai resident said in the video. “When I inhaled it, it tasted a little sweet.”
The effectiveness of non-needle vaccines is not fully understood. Chinese regulators approved the inhaled vaccine in September, but only as a booster shot after studies showed it triggered an immune system response in people who had previously received two shots of another Chinese vaccine.
A vaccine taken as a mist could ward off the virus before it reaches the rest of the respiratory system, although that would depend in part on the size of the droplets, an expert said.
Larger droplets would train defenses in parts of the mouth and throat, while smaller ones would penetrate further into the body, Dr. Vineeta Bal, an immunologist in India.
The inhalable vaccine was developed by Chinese biopharmaceutical company CanSino Biologics Inc. as an aerosol version of the company’s one-shot adenovirus vaccine, which uses a relatively harmless common cold virus.
The traditional one-shot vaccine has been approved for use in more than 10 markets including China, Hungary, Pakistan, Malaysia, Argentina and Mexico. The inhaled version has received the green light for clinical trials in Malaysia, a Malaysian media report said last month.
Regulators in India have approved a nasal vaccine, another needle-free approach but one that has yet to be rolled out. Developed in the US and licensed to Indian vaccine maker Bharat Biotech, the vaccine is injected into the nose.
About a dozen nasal vaccines are being tested around the world, according to the World Health Organization.
China has relied on domestically developed vaccines, mainly two inactivated vaccines that have proven effective in preventing death and serious illness, but less than Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines in stopping the spread of the disease.
Chinese authorities have also not mandated vaccination – entering an office building or other public place requires a negative Covid-19 test, not proof of vaccination. And the country’s strict “zero Covid” approach means only a small proportion of the population has contracted and built up immunity in this way compared to other places.
As a result, it’s unclear how far Covid-19 would spread if restrictions were lifted. The ruling Communist Party has so far shown no sign of easing its zero-Covid policy and has acted quickly to limit travel and impose lockdowns even when few cases are detected.
The information for this article was contributed by Aniruddha Ghosal and Olivia Zhang of The Associated Press.