There’s been increased anxiety after epidemiologists warned of a new and significantly more virulent coronavirus variant, Omicron, circulating in parts of South Africa and some other countries. With it, the race to find ways to stop the COVID-19 pandemic has acquired more urgency. In that effort, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, US, have tested a new experimental chewing gum that could reduce the amount of coronavirus particles in saliva. This, the researchers say, could help slow the transmission of the virus when infected people talk, breathe, or cough.

The coronavirus has been found to transmit through both droplets and aerosols and is linked in large part with indoor exposure of infected individuals. To control transmission, steps to reduce concentrations of indoor aerosols largely through masking and physical distancing have been suggested. The researchers say chewing the gum they have developed releases a protein in the mouth that “traps” virus particles, which could curb the spread of virus-laden droplets. They hope this gum could aid the global vaccination efforts and be useful in countries where vaccines are not yet widely available.

The study has been published in the journal Molecular Therapy. “Chewing gum with virus-trapping proteins offers a general affordable strategy to protect patients from most oral virus re-infections through debulking or minimizing transmission to others,” as per the authors.

The study explains that the gum contains copies of the ACE2 protein on cell surfaces, which is the “spike” protein that the coronavirus uses to infect cells. During experiments, the researchers found that the virus particles attached to the ACE2 receptors in the gum and the viral load fell by more than 95 percent.

The researchers tested the chewing gum in test tubes using saliva and swab samples from hospitalised patients with confirmed COVID-19. Though the gum is not yet available for use, the researchers say the gum meets US drug regulators’ requirements.