From nasal sprays to sniffer dogs: Thai researchers develop unique weapons to fight COVID-19

Researcher prepare samples of human sweat for a Labrador Retriever, to detect the COVID-19 coronavirus at a mobile canine unit in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

When Thailand began its battle against COVID-19 early last year, local scientists were quick to launch research programs on innovative weapons to contain the virus. So far, their hard work has yielded a small but effective armory, ranging from vaccine prototypes to groundbreaking test kits and more.

Clinical trials for Thai vaccines

More than 20 COVID-19 vaccines being developed in Thailand, and three have entered human trials after showing promising results.

The much-touted frontrunner is “ChulaCov19”, a collaborative effort by Chulalongkorn University, the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital and Pennsylvania University in the US. This prototype vaccine is based on the powerful mRNA technology used by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

ChulaCov19 offered 94% efficacy against COVID-19 in its Phase 1 trials – results on par with Pfizer and better than AstraZeneca (84%) and Sinovac (68%). Side-effects from ChulaCov19 are also mild, ranging from fever and chills to soreness around the injection site.

Expanded Phase 2 trials on several hundred volunteers began last month. Dr. Kiat Ruxrungtham, chair of Chulalongkorn University’s Chula Vaccine Research Centre, hopes ChulaCov19 will sail through all three phases of human trials and be available as a booster in Thailand by next year.

The other promising vaccine candidate is Baiya SARS-CoV-2 Vax1, which has been created using cells from tobacco leaves. After successful trials on guinea pigs and macaques, this prototype will enter its first phase of human trials before the end of this month.

Developed by Chulalongkorn University’s Baiya Photofarm, this protein-based subunit vaccine will be tested on 50 volunteers in the first stage of Phase 1. If the results are satisfactory, researchers will begin trials in elderly people too. Provided things go as planned, this vaccine should be launched by mid-next year.

Also making significant progress is a vaccine being developed by the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) in collaboration with Mahidol University. Backed by international non-profit organization PATH, the HXP–GPOVac prototype is egg-based, like the flu vaccine.

This inactivated chimeric vaccine has already entered its second phase of human trials. Its similarity to the flu vaccine means it should be easy to mass-produce at the GPO’s plant in Saraburi province.

Meanwhile, Bionet-Asia is developing a DNA-based prototype vaccine and is preparing to roll out a first-phase human trial next month.

Human trials of Thailand’s ChulaCov19 mRNA vaccine show promising results

The mRNA vaccine, currently being developed by the Vaccine Research Centre of the Faculty of Medicine of Chulalongkorn University, can stimulate the immune system to produce killer T-cells which can stop four COVID-19 variants, namely Alpha, Delta, Beta and Gamma, said Professor Dr. Kiat Ruxrungtham, director of the vaccine development project, today (Monday) He said that the initial results of the first phase of human trials of the ChulaCov19 mRNA vaccine candidate in 36 volunteers, aged between 18 and 55, who were given two shots, are “good news”.

Nasal-spray vaccine

There is more good news for anyone who is terrified by needles. The National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) is developing a COVID-19 vaccine administered as a nasal spray.

So far, this prototype has produced a strong immune response in guinea pigs, and BIOTEC is planning to test it on human volunteers in the fourth quarter of this year.

The tests will be conducted in collaboration with the Chulabhorn Royal Academy.

At present, all COVID-19 vaccines available in Thailand and abroad have to be injected, so the arrival of BIOTEC’s nasal spray will offer a welcome alternative to those who are afraid of jabs.

Thai COVID-test tools

Driven by the severe outbreak of COVID-19, several Thai research teams have been working hard to develop antigen test kits. Efficient screening and early detection are known to be highly effective in containing the spread of the disease.

To achieve this aim, the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC) has developed the NANO COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test. Boasting high accuracy, this innovation uses the lateral flow assay (LFA) technique to deliver results in 15 minutes. Cleared by the Thai Food and Drug Administration, it is now almost ready to hit the shelves.

Meanwhile, an antigen test developed by Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital also delivers results within 15 minutes and is easy to use.

Even faster is the kit developed by Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Science and a startup. It requires one drop of blood from the fingertip and can deliver a result in less than 10 minutes.

Sniffing out the virus

Thai researchers have also stepped outside the box and discovered a way of training dogs to sniff out the virus.

Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Veterinary Science (CUVET) has designed a special technique for sniffer dogs to detect asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers.

“A dog’s sense of smell is 50 times better than that of a human, so we thought of tapping this potential, especially with Labrador retrievers who have a long nasal cavity. They have a particularly sensitive sense of smell and are friendly and easy to train. We picked six dogs for the initial training,” said Prof Dr. Kewali Chatdarong, deputy dean for CUVET’s Research and Innovation Department and leader of the project.

Tests so far show that the dogs are 94.8% accurate in detecting asymptomatic COVID-19 cases.

Woof woof: Thailand’s virus sniffer dogs to detect COVID19 in communities

Posing at a photo-opportunity organised by the Faculty of Veterinary Science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, they are demonstrating how they are ready to patrol the streets, hoping to locate people with COVID-19. The canine team will soon be sent to communities suspected of being new COVID-19 hotspots to screen people with possible infections.

Other gadgets and devices

The outbreak in Thailand has spurred the development of other innovative devices and equipment. Among them is a robot created by Chulalongkorn University’s Engineering Faculty in collaboration with a CU startup. Adapted from a stainless-steel food cart, Pinto CU-ROBO COVID communicates with humans via a tablet. It serves as a device for medical personnel to communicate with COVID-19 patients from a distance, thereby lowering the risk of transmitting the virus.

Meanwhile, Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine has come up with “Chula Vid” – a negative-pressure cabinet that lowers the risk of contracting the disease for medics conducting COVID-19 tests.

Another important new weapon is the “Mobile COVID-19 Prevention Innovations by SCG”. These mobile negative-pressure rooms help medics deliver treatment to patients in hospital and intensive care with greater safety. Similar to tents, these “rooms” can be assembled or dismantled quickly and easily, anywhere.

The SCG innovations also stretch to negative-pressure capsules that isolate one patient and be easily moved around without putting others at risk. Doctors and nurses can safely perform medical tasks by reaching into another negative-pressure innovation, which also allows them to monitor and communicate with the patient.

Similar negative-pressure rooms for medical personnel allow them to conduct COVID-19 tests through an opening for the arms that minimizes risk through contact with the patient.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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