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14 Jul 2021

Covid nasal spray claims go too far

Nasal sprays sold at LloydsPharmacy and online withdrawn after Which? raises concerns with regulators

Several nasal sprays which claimed to stop Covid-19 in its tracks have amended their marketing or paused the sale of products after Which? raised concerns about claims that could potentially mislead consumers with regulators.

Viraleze (£15, previously sold in LloydsPharmacy), Taffix and ViroStop nasal sprays (sold online) all made bold claims about killing Covid in the nasal passage before it has the chance to make you ill.

The idea is that it's a handy remedy you can carry around in your pocket and use for an extra layer of protection against variants while travelling or in crowded, higher-risk situations.

But if this sounds a little too good to be true, it's because in many ways it is.

While there are some nasal sprays currently in clinical trials that sound promising, you can't buy them yet and the ones that were on sale have now dialled back on Covid-related claims.

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Anti-Covid sprays: the small print matters

Viraleze, sold in LloydsPharmacy, claimed to 'irreversibly inactivate greater than 99.9% of coronavirus/SARS-CoV2 within one minute'.

But in the small print this product, and the other sprays we looked into, billed itself as an extra line of defense that shouldn't replace face masks, social distancing and vaccinations.

What's more, these sprays have also only been tested in relatively small lab-based studies and haven't yet been proven effective in human clinical trials.

For Viraleze, the study the claim was based on was commissioned by the manufacturer Starpharma, and although the results were certainly promising, they were based on a chemical reaction observed in a lab - not clinical trials on humans.

Results could differ significantly in clinical trials, so although technically the claim used to market this product was true, we felt the claim that the nasal spray was able to kill Covid was misleading and could give users a false sense of security.

Covid claims must conform to strict rules

We flagged our concerns about the way these products were being marketed to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

The ASA told us that it couldn't comment on a specific example without raising a case and going through its processes, but that ads claiming to prevent Covid are likely to be considered medicinal claims and nasal sprays are typically classed as medical devices.

Therefore, claims to prevent Covid via a nasal spray are only likely to be acceptable if the marketer can demonstrate that the product holds the appropriate clinical trial evidence to support the claims.

The MHRA made similar comments around its regulation of medical devices, saying the product manufacturer must hold sufficient clinical evidence to support the quality, safety and performance of their product in fulfilling its intended purpose. This may be based on data gathered via clinical trials of the product or existing published scientific literature.

Covid claims canned

It's clear that the medicines regulator in the UK feels there isn't enough evidence to support these products' action against Covid right now, as there has since been a crackdown on these products and the way they are promoted.

When we last checked, Viraleze had been removed from sale, Taffix no longer appears to be available in the UK and Virostop, while still available, no longer makes claims around killing Covid.

The MHRA told us that it wasn't able to comment on individual investigations, but that it's aware of the issue, and can confirm that promotion and sales of Viraleze have been paused in the UK.

LloydsPharmcy told us:

'We take our position as a trusted healthcare provider within communities extremely seriously which is why we have temporarily paused sales of Viraleze.

'We are working with Starpharma, the manufacturer of Viralezeu2122 Antiviral Nasal Spray, to seek further clarification from the MHRA over questions raised about the product categorisation and promotional language - the correspondence received does not relate to the safety or quality of Viraleze.

'In the meantime, we have followed the MHRA's initial instructions, and all affected stock has been removed from sale and quarantined.'

We also contacted Taffix and Virostop for comment, but didn't receive a response.

We may yet see these products return to the market once the MHRA has concluded its investigation, and it's possible that once further clinical evidence is gathered they could be approved as an extra line of defense against Covid.

But it's important that manufacturers market their products responsibly, especially in the context of Covid, and that they can show sufficient clinical evidence to back up claims.

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Nasal sprays may yet be a promising weapon against Covid

All of this is not to say that nasal sprays such as these might not play an important part in the prevention or treatment of Covid in the future.

There are more preventative nasal sprays in development, currently being tested in trials. Products such as this could be particularly useful for crowded places, large events and travelling.

Clinical trials of a nasal spray called Sanotize in the UK also look promising for use in people already infected with Covid.

The spray, which is not yet available to purchase, could prevent the transmission of Covid, shorten its course and reduce the severity of symptoms in those already infected - according to strong phase two trial results.

Pankaj Sharma, Professor of neurology and director of the Institute of Cardiovascular Research at Royal Holloway, University of London, explains that the spray works by delivering nitric oxide into the nasal cavity, where the virus incubates when it first enters our bodies.

Nitric oxide has been shown to inactivate the Covid virus by disrupting its structural integrity. Our bodies produce nitric oxide naturally and it helps with important bodily functions such as widening the blood vessels to allow for blood flow.

Nasal spray vaccines also in development

There are also trials going on to develop Covid vaccines which can be administered as a nasal spray, like with the children's flu vaccine.

Researchers at Oxford University, where one such vaccine is in development, said that nasal spray vaccines can have advantages, including introducing local immunity where pathogens build up and being a better option for the needle-phobic.