The global fight against COVID-19 takes many forms. For VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland it also comes in the shape of an artificial human head, which helps researchers to investigate the mechanisms of droplet and aerosol transmission of the virus.
Unveiled earlier this year, the artificial head is capable of breathing, coughing and sneezing out specific and repeatable consistencies of droplets and aerosols. This helps to determine the effectiveness of masks, air purifiers and other products that reduce the risk of transmission.
Yet, when it comes to stopping the virus dead in its tracks, the world’s attention is transfixed on the rollout of vaccines. While there are already several leading parties which have staked their claim on the global market, Finland’s Rokote Laboratories seeks to distinguish itself through an alternative route: the nasopharyngeal tract.
Based on research by the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland, its nasal spray vaccine triggers an immune response by prompting nasopharyngeal cells to produce a virus protein with a safe adenovirus carrier containing a cloned DNA strain.
Aside from appealing to those who are needle averse, there is a more substantial reason for this nasal focus. Tentative results point to nasal administration inducing a broader immune response than intramuscular administration, producing antibodies that protect mucous membranes – an important factor to consider given the typical point of entry for an airborne disease.
“We assume that this can also prevent those who have received the vaccine from transmitting the virus,” added Seppo Ylä-Herttuala, an academy professor at the University of Eastern Finland.
A preventative innovation
Turku-based company Therapeutica Borealis, too, has focused on the nose when developing its patented solution. Its nasal spray weakens the ability of the virus to enter the body and replicate itself, thus decreasing the risk of seriously falling ill.
“Tackling the pandemic probably requires, in addition to a vaccine, a preventive or early-acting drug,” said Kalervo Väänänen, one of the three inventors and founders of Therapeutica Borealis. “This drug also helps especially in a situation where vaccine coverage threatens to remain too low for herd immunity.”
The solution is created from the commonly used drugs aprotinin, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, which are harnessed in a new and targeted manner on the mucous membrane of the upper respiratory tract.
The innovation is turning heads. Therapeutica Borealis announced this week that its drug has been granted a patent from The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This final patent stands as an important milestone for the company.
“Our next goal is to find an established pharmaceutical industry company with an international business scale,” Väänänen said.
“Completing the development of the drug within a quick schedule is possible, because the molecules being used are known in terms of safety, and the development can be directed at phase-II tests on efficacy and efficiency in relation to different doses and dosing mechanisms,” he added.
Rapid test results
Researchers at the University of Helsinki, meanwhile, announced this month that they have developed a new rapid assay principle for viral antigen detection, which diagnoses SARS-CoV-2 infections in as little as 10 minutes. They found that the rapid test was able to diagnose the infection almost as accurately as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The test format can also be used to diagnose other respiratory infections.
The test is based on a phenomenon known as time-resolved Förster resonance energy transfer (TR-FRET), in which energy travels between two light-sensitive molecules when they are in close enough proximity.
Alongside haste, the test boasts some additional beneficial features. It can detect coronavirus even when the sample collection has not been optimal, and, since the virus becomes inactivated soon after being mixed in the test solution, it also enhances levels of safety for testers.
Furthermore, the test could in essence be carried out anywhere since the test requires a TR-FRET reader roughly the size of a desktop computer.
“The theoretical capacity of the test is very high,” commented Jussi Hepojoki, docent of virology and Academy of Finland research fellow at the University of Helsinki. “According to our calculations, it would be possible to manually analyse as many as 500 samples per hour, with one person doing the testing and using a single testing device. Also, the cost of test reagents is fairly low.”
Sniffer dogs piloted at construction sites
Finnish construction company YIT has trialled the use of dogs to detect the virus at its construction sites. YIT carried out the pilot in co-operation with WiseNose, which trains COVID-19 smell detection dogs. Altogether, the dogs sniffed almost 1 000 samples collected from more than 10 construction sites. One significant outcome of the trial was that it prevented the spread of infection at one very large site.