Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and the biotech firm Regeneron are investigating whether technology developed for gene therapy can be used to make a nasal spray that will prevent infection with the new corona-virus. The idea is to use a weakened virus as a delivery truck to carry genetic instructions to cells within the nose and the throat, which will in turn create powerful antibodies to stop COVID-19 from invading our bodies. The advantage of this new approach is that you don’t need a competent immune system for this to be effective. The technology is currently being tested in animals and if successful, it could provide people with around six months of protection from a single dose, sprayed up the nose, and therefore complement vaccines that could soon be approved. This approach led in 2019 to the approval of Zolgensma, the first drug for the treatment of spinal muscular atrophy, and today induced antibodies are being investigated for dozens of more possible applications.

Recently, Regeneron developed two promising lab-made antibodies against the corona-virus, which bind to a surface protein of the pathogen and stop it from invading our cells. Regeneron’s antibodies are themselves in clinical testing but have received emergency approval for patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 who are at high-risk of getting severe disease—and were notably used recently to treat president Donald Trump. Researchers are hoping that the nasal spray could be squirted through the nostrils, enter nasal epithelial cells, and hijack their protein-making machinery so that they make Regeneron’s antibodies.

Normally, only the body’s immune cells create antibodies, which makes the new idea a particularly innovative approach. Since the corona-virus enters the lungs through the nasal passage, the spray could halt the infection in its tracks. What’s more, these induced antibodies cause only a mild immune response so the side effects could be less severe than the new vaccines, which work by training the immune system to recognize a key protein of the virus. The University of Pennsylvania and Regeneron hope to complete their animal studies by January, before applying to the Food and Drug Administration to begin human trials.