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Coronavirus nasal vaccine developers plan human trials in Finland

As they seek funding, the researchers say more vaccines are needed to combat new variants of the contagious virus.

University of Eastern Finland's Academy Professor Seppo Ylä-Herttuala looking through a laboratory window. Image: Antti-Petteri Karhunen / Yle

Development of a nasally-administered coronavirus vaccine has taken a step forward in Finland, according to researchers who said that clinical trials are being planned as they look for further funding.

The academic researchers who recently founded Rokote Laboratories Finland began developing the vaccine last spring at the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland.

The decision to make the vaccine nasally-administered rather than by injection was due to the way coronavirus is transmitted--through the respiratory system, according to Academy Professor Seppo Ylä-Herttuala from the University of Eastern Finland.

Nasal administration of the vaccine appears to cause a broader immune response in people than injections, he explained.

"Vaccines injected intramuscularly produce IgG (immunoglobulin G) antibodies in the bloodstream, but nasal vaccines also produce an IgA response that protects mucous membranes. We assume that this can also prevent those who have received the vaccine from transmitting the virus," Ylä-Herttuala said in a statement issued on Monday.

'More vaccines needed'

Several coronavirus vaccines have already been developed and distributed around the world, but Ylä-Herttuala said new ones were still needed going forward.

That's due to the anticipated arrival of more coronavirus variants, according to his colleague, Professor of Virology Kalle Saksela from the University of Helsinki.

"Even if we were able to vaccinate the entire population, at least people in medical risk groups will still need new vaccines against new variants in the upcoming years. The vaccines currently in use provide a clearly lower protection against the South African variant, which will likely be the dominant virus in the next wave. Our vaccine already takes into account the most important variants, i.e. the South African, Brazilian and the UK one. There will certainly be a demand for this type of vaccine," Saksela said.

The vaccine is based on gene transfer tech developed by Ylä-Herttuala's research group. The technology has already been used successfully in gene therapy trials for the treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to the researchers.

Rokote Laboratories Finland was founded by Professors Ylä-Herttuala and Saksela along with Professor Kari Alitalo from the University of Helsinki and Pasi Kemppainen, all of whom are also the firm's board members.

Production possible in Kuopio

Kemppainen said that the firm was in the process of negotiating funding in order to further develop the vaccine with an aim towards carrying out clinical trials.

He said that the commercial technology needed to produce the vaccine in mass quantities was already available in the city of Kuopio, in Northern Savo.

"The vaccine can be manufactured in considerable quantities here in Kuopio and, in the long term, it can also be licensed outside Europe. The current focus is, of course, on the Covid vaccine, but the same method can also be used to develop vaccines against other viruses," Kemppainen said in the statement.

The researchers did not announce a timetable for the clinical trials in its announcement, but noted that many people have expressed an interest in taking part once they begin.

However, the group noted that eventual trial participants would be "recruited digitally to obtain samples that are population-representative and comparable."

The University of Helsinki and University of Eastern Finland are also co-founders and shareholders of the company.