Last spring, Ann Arbor-based BlueWillow Biologics announced that its first consumer product, a nasal antiseptic, was effective in a lab setting against Covid-19. Originally sold on the company’s website, and then on, it will now be featured in the drugstore chain’s “preparedness towers,” alongside other personal protective equipment.

“BlueWillow is a small biopharmaceutical company that wants to make a big impact on the public health of this country,” says Don Cumming, VP for marketing and sales. He’s working to secure contracts with other national retailers.

“For twenty years, we have been a science company, not a sales and marketing organization,” says chief medical officer Chad Costley, an Atlanta primary care doctor and U-M alum. “Now we have an opportunity to make a significant difference in helping to protect our communities during this pandemic.”

The company, formerly known as NanoBio, is marketing NanoBio Protect as an anti-infection precaution. But unlike social distancing, mask wearing, and handwashing, which reduce exposure to bacteria and viruses, it’s designed to kill them on the body’s threshold.

“Studies show that no matter how hard they try, people touch their faces several times a minute, often without knowing it,” says Costley. “I know whenever I take off my medical mask, the first thing I do is rub my nose.”

NanoBio Protect is applied in and around the nostrils with a cotton swab. Costley says a $24.95 bottle should last a month with once-daily applications–although he urges people in high-contact professions (teachers, flight attendants, and medical professionals, for instance) to use it three or four times a day.

U-M prof James Baker spun NanoBio off from the university in 2000 to develop nanoscale dermatology applications (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter). The company has spent $190 million developing its nanotechnology platform, which uses miniscule particles to deliver therapies through the nose. The company also is working on immunotherapy for food and respiratory allergies and vaccines for respiratory and sexually transmitted infections. NanoVax, an intranasal herpes vaccine, is in the first phase of human studies.

Only prescription drugs are subject to such reviews. NanoBio Protect’s active ingredient, a common antiseptic known as BZK, was already approved for over-the-counter sales, so BlueWillow could bring it to market much more quickly.

Working with the Department of Defense and the U-M, the company originally developed the antiseptic to treat wounds and their infections. But once people began spending “a lot of time and energy keeping their hands clean,” Costley says, “a nasal antiseptic seemed intuitive.”

BlueWillow had already demonstrated its effectiveness against a variety of germs, Costley says. “We strongly suspected NanoBio Protect would be active against Covid-19, as well.

“BZK carries the droplets to the head of the germ and exists on the skin for a period of time, persisting in preventing admission,” Costley explains–he compares them to bouncers at the door of a bar. “The formula holds the active ingredient suspended, so it doesn’t crystalize like many nasal sprays or antiseptics will.”

BlueWillow partnered with Public Health England to test the antiseptic on the novel coronavirus. In a Biosafety Level 3 facility, PHE scientists mixed it with the virus. Samples were taken at various time intervals, then plated for viral counts. NanoBio Protect killed 99.99 percent of the virus and remained effective for more than four hours.

“It has not been tested in humans, but our results are very clear about its ability to kill Covid-19 in a lab,” Costley says. “It’s rewarding, after so many years of research, to have a product that people can use, a product that makes a significant difference.”

In October, the company announced a partnership with “product philanthropy” nonprofit Good360 to donate one bottle of NanoBio Protect for every bottle purchased. By mid-month, it had donated nearly 7,000 bottles to groups in New York, Louisiana, California, and Washington state.