What are “powder vaccines” and how close are we to being able to use them to combat COVID-19

At this time, protection against covid-19 is obtained through an injection. But in the future, the inoculations could come from inhalers or even pills.

In an airy white laboratory in Medicon Village, one of southern Sweden’s largest science parks, chemist Ingemo Andersson holds up a thin plastic inhaler, about the size of half a matchbox.

His team hopes that this small product can play an important role in the global fight against coronavirus, by allowing people to drink at home. powdered versions of future vaccines.

“It’s easy and very cheap to produce,” says Johan Waborg, CEO of the company, which generally makes inhalers for asthma patients.

“You just take off a little plastic slip and then the vaccine inhaler is activated and put in your mouth, you take a deep breath and inhale.”

Ingemo Andersson with the Iconovo inhaler vaccine.

The company, Iconovo, is collaborating with an immunology research company in Stockholm, ISR, which has developed a dry powder vaccine against covid-19.

Use covid-19 virus proteins manufactured (unlike Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra Zeneca, which use RNA or DNA encoding these proteins) and can withstand temperatures up to 40 ° C.

That’s a stark contrast to the conditions needed to store current coronavirus vaccines that are commonly available and approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), which are all in liquid form.

They should be kept in glass vials resistant to temperatures as low as -70 ° C, atBefore transferring them to refrigerators, or they lose their effectiveness, which is known as the “cold chain”.

“The game changer is that you can distribute the vaccine [en polvo] very easily without the cold chain, and it can be administered without the need for healthcare providers, ”says ISR founder Ola Winquist, professor of immunology at the Karolinska Institute, one of Sweden’s leading medical universities.

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Freeze Dried Food

The company is currently testing its vaccines in beta (South Africa) and alpha (UK) variants of covid-19.

He believes that it could be especially useful in accelerating vaccine launches in Africa, where there are currently no local vaccine manufacturers.

And warmer climates and limited electricity supplies have created big challenges when it comes to storing and delivering COVID-19 vaccines before they expire.

There’s still a way to go before rehearsals show the potential of the ISR air-dried vaccine, including whether it is capable of offering the same level of protection as the current list of WHO-approved vaccines.

So far, it has only been tested in mice, although ISR and Iconovo have raised enough funds to begin human studies in the next two months.


Stefan Swartling Peterson says that powdered vaccines could avoid the “cold chain” that current vaccines require.

But there is already optimism within the medical community that if powder vaccines like this are successful, they could revolutionize the global response to the pandemic of coronavirus, in addition to facilitating the storage and distribution of vaccines for other diseases.

“It would really open up opportunities for hard-to-reach areas and maybe save us from having people lugging coolers onto bicycles and camels,” says Stefan Swartling Peterson, UNICEF’s head of global health from 2016 to 2020, now professor of global transformation for health at the Karolinska.

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Compare the potential impact to that of freeze-dried foods, which have proven to be “great for going to all kinds of weird places. that are out of the reach of electricity ”, either to be used by medical personnel or simply for adventurous campers.

As companies around the world are researching powdered vaccines, Swartling Peterson is pointing to another startup with “promising technology”, just a 10-minute walk from Iconovo.

Ziccum is testing a technology designed to air dry liquid vaccines existing or future in a way that does not limit their effectiveness.

This could facilitate the establishment of so-called “fill and finish” facilities in developing countries, allowing them to complete the final stages of vaccine production on their own territory.

The vaccine powder would be mixed with a sterile water solution just prior to immunization and then injected using vials and needles.

However, the technology “opens up to various other types of administration”, from nasal sprays to pillssays its CEO, Göran Conradsson.

“It takes a lot of research and development for that. But in principle, yes ”.

Alternative “greener”

Janssen, which makes the single-dose covid vaccine, which the drug regulator approved for use in the UK last month, is already working on a pilot project designed to test Ziccum’s air-drying capabilities.

The pharmaceutical giant has not said if the project is related to the coronavirus or other infectious diseases, but a spokesperson said the research was part of an in-depth approach to “explore novel technology that has the potential to facilitate the distribution, administration and compliance” of future vaccines.

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Powdered technologies could also help those who fear needles and offer a “greener” alternative to liquid vaccines, by reducing the electricity needed to power refrigerators and freezers that are typically used to store vaccine vials.


Goran conradsson

And it could help global vaccine coverage.

No one is safe until everyone is safeConradsson says. “You never know what will happen if you (still) have the coronavirus circulating somewhere in the world.”

“We need to be able to bring vaccines to populations in all settings to deal with epidemics and pandemics globally,” agrees Ingrid Kromann, spokesperson for the Coalition for Innovation in Epidemic Preparedness (Cepi), a global organization. nonprofit that works to accelerate vaccine development.

She is cautious and says that powder vaccines are still in an early stage development and that “there is still a lot of work to do”, for example, to optimize and expand the manufacturing process.

“But if it is successful, it could contribute to better access to vaccines, less waste and lower costs of vaccination programs.”

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