BEIJING >> The Chinese city of Shanghai began administering an inhalable COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday in what appears to be a world first.
The vaccine, a mist that is snorted through the mouth, is being offered free of charge as a booster dose for people previously vaccinated, according to an announcement on an official city social media account.
Scientists hope these “needle-free” vaccines will make vaccination more accessible in countries with fragile health systems because they are easier to administer. They can also persuade people who don’t like getting a shot in the arm to get vaccinated.
China wants more people to get booster shots before relaxing tight pandemic restrictions that are holding back the economy and increasingly out of sync with the rest of the world. As of mid-October, 90% of Chinese were fully vaccinated and 57% had received a booster shot.
A video posted by a Chinese state media outlet online showed people at a community health center putting the short spout of a translucent white cup into their mouths. The accompanying text said that after inhaling slowly, people hold their breath for five seconds and the entire procedure is completed in 20 seconds.
“It was like drinking a cup of tea with milk,” a Shanghai resident said in the video. “When I breathed it in, it tasted a little sweet.”
The efficacy of needle-free vaccines has not been fully explored. Chinese regulators approved the inhalable in September, but only as a booster shot after studies showed it triggered an immune system response in people who had previously received two injections of a different Chinese vaccine.
A vaccine taken as a mist could fend off the virus before it reaches the rest of the respiratory system, though that would depend in part on the size of the droplets, one expert said.
The larger droplets would train defenses in parts of the mouth and throat, while the smaller ones would travel further into the body, said 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 single-shot adenovirus vaccine, which uses a relatively harmless cold virus.
The traditional single-shot vaccine has been approved for use in more than 10 markets, including China, Hungary, Pakistan, Malaysia, Argentina and Mexico. The inhaled version has been given the go-ahead 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 it has yet to be implemented. The vaccine, developed in the US and licensed by Indian vaccine manufacturer Bharat Biotech, is injected into the nose.
According to the World Health Organization, about a dozen nasal vaccines are being tested around the world.
China has relied on domestically developed vaccines, mainly two inactivated vaccines that have proven effective in preventing death and serious illness, but less so than Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines in stopping the spread of the disease.
Chinese authorities have also not required vaccination: entering an office building or other public places requires a negative COVID-19 test, not proof of vaccination. And the country’s strict “COVID zero” approach means that only a small proportion of the population has been infected and developed immunity that way, compared to elsewhere.
As a result, it is unclear how widespread COVID-19 would spread if restrictions were lifted. The ruling Communist Party has so far shown no signs of easing the “zero-COVID” policy, moving quickly to restrict travel and impose lockdowns when only a few cases are discovered.
Authorities on Wednesday ordered the confinement of 900,000 people in Wuhan, the city where the virus was first detected in late 2019, for at least five days. In the remote province of Qinghai, the urban districts of the city of Xining have been closed since last Friday.
In Beijing, Universal Studios said it would close its hotels and attractions “to comply with the prevention and control of the pandemic.” The city of more than 21 million people reported 19 new cases in the last 24-hour period.