Kiwi scientists are looking at whether a decoy molecule, delivered through an inhaler, could fool coronavirus by drawing it in before it can attach to our lung cells.
A team led by Auckland Hospital immunologist Associate Professor Rohan Ameratunga is exploring the concept of making a bogus receptor that could be used in a device that could keep healthcare workers safe.
"The virus is also entering the lungs through droplets of moisture, so the decoy — we hope — would stop the virus from binding to the cells," said Dr Davide Comoletti, a senior lecturer at Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences.
"The idea is to make a purified receptor most spikes of the virus will bind to instead of to the actual receptors attached to sensitive cells.
"Once the virus is 'coated' with the fake receptor, it should be eliminated like any other particle — dust, bacteria, non-pathogenic viruses — through the phlegm."
The decoys would hopefully reduce the amount of virus that makes it through and attached to the cells.
"Imagine it this way. If you have a key — the virus' spike — to enter a locked door — the cell — you first have to find the right lock pad — the receptor.
"Think of it as a bunch of lock pads flying around that will sequester all the keys the virus has, even before it sees the doors."
Work on the project, which also includes renowned viral immunologist and Malaghan Institute director Professor Graham Le Gros, began in mid-March.
The intention was to have an approved product ready to use on any critically ill Covid-19 patients in a bit more than two months, Comoletti said.
"While I leave the clinical work and testing to my colleagues, my specific role will be to produce and purify the receptor in large enough amounts that it can be used to help a few patients, at least as a test treatment. If it works, then large-scale, company production will be needed."
Comoletti was one of the few academics still working on the University's Kelburn campus during the lockdown, as it is essential Covid-19-related work.
Helping him produce receptors in his lab are postdoctoral researcher Dr Laura Trobiani and postgraduate student Liam Turk.
He said this was a novel approach towards mitigating the effects of a lethal infection.
"We are hoping this strategy will be successful, because it will reduce the morbidity and the mortality of Covid-19 infections.
"It will mean some of those with severe cases of the disease will instead only have milder forms of infection. As well as reducing potential mortality rates, it may help free up precious intensive-care unit beds and equipment.
"In the future, if our research proves to be successful and if drug supplies increase, the purified-receptor agent could be used in milder cases to ease and shorten the duration of infection and halt much community spread.
"It could also be used on family members or caregivers exposed to the virus to reduce their risk of catching the infection, where the transmission rates are very high.
"What we hope for the most is shortening the duration of the pandemic and saving many lives through a treatment that has a low-risk of adverse effects."
The research team was not carrying out this work to make money and the results would be freely available for others to use.
Ameratunga said if a "drug company wants to manufacture our product, we ask that for every dose in the OECD 10 should be used in developing Asian, African and Latin American nations".
Comoletti said the researchers were all using their own resources.
"I'll be applying for funding towards this at some stage, but I'm very lucky to have Laura and Liam, two great researchers, working with me in the lab."
Comoletti said they had to stay realistic and keep in mind the possible treatment is still a "long shot".
"Doing nothing, however, is not an option."