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Afraid of needles? China rolls out oral COVID-19 vaccine

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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 sucked in through the mouth, is offered free of charge as a booster dose for those already vaccinated, according to an announcement on an official social media account for the city.

Scientists hope that 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 an injection in their arm to get the shot.

China wants more people to receive reminders before easing tough pandemic restrictions that are holding back the economy and 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.

A video posted by Chinese state media online showed people at a community health center sticking the short tip of a translucent white cup into their mouths. The accompanying text stated that after slowly inhaling, people held their breath for five seconds, with the entire procedure completed in 20 seconds.

“It was like drinking a cup of milk tea,” a Shanghai resident said in the video. “When I sniffed it, it tasted a bit sweet.”

A vaccine taken in the mouth could also repel the virus before it reaches the rest of the respiratory system, although this partly depends on the size of the droplets, an expert has said.

The larger droplets would drive tusks into parts of the mouth and throat, while the smaller ones would travel further into the body, said India-based immunologist Dr Vineeta Bal.

Chinese regulators approved the vaccine for use as a booster in September. It 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 green light for clinical trials in Malaysia, according to a Malaysian media report last month.

Regulators in India have approved a nasal vaccine, another needle-free approach, but it has yet to be rolled out. The vaccine, developed in the United States and licensed to Indian vaccine maker Bharat Biotech, is injected into the nose.

According to the World Health Organization, a dozen nasal vaccines are currently being tested around the world.

China has relied on domestically developed vaccines, mainly two inactivated vaccines that have been shown to be effective in preventing death and serious illness, but less than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in stopping the spread of disease.

Chinese authorities have also not mandated vaccination – entering an office building or other public places requires a negative COVID-19 test, not proof of vaccination. And the country’s strict ‘zero-COVID’ approach means that only a small proportion of the population has been infected and built up immunity this way, compared to other places.

As a result, it is unclear how far COVID-19 would spread if restrictions were lifted. The ruling Communist Party has so far shown no sign of easing the ‘zero-COVID’ policy, moving quickly to restrict travel and impose lockdowns even when 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, urban neighborhoods in the city of Xining have been on lockdown since last Friday.

In Beijing, Universal Studios said it would close its hotels and attractions “to comply with pandemic prevention and control.” The city of more than 21 million people reported 19 new cases in the past 24 hours.

This story has been corrected to indicate that CanSino’s single-shot vaccine has been approved for use in more than 10 markets, not that the inhaled version has completed clinical trials in those locations.

Associated Press writer Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi and video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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