The past few months have seen some people doing really stupid things because they think it could help them avoid COVID-19, but taking a DIY vaccine might just take the cake. And yet that is exactly what a group of dozens of scientists say they have been doing, even though nobody knows if it works or if it is even legal.
In what is believed to be the first “citizen science” vaccine initiative against COVID-19, a group of technologists, researchers and science enthusiasts have volunteered to serve as guinea pigs for a DIY vaccine project. Many of those involved have connections to MIT and Harvard University.
They believe that making their own vaccine will grant them immunity to the disease without waiting a year or more for an official vaccine to gain formal approval.
One person who is taking this rudimentary vaccine is Harvard geneticist George Church. After he received the ingredients in the mail, he mixed them and took two doses a week apart earlier in July.
He’s part of a group that goes by the name Rapid Development Vaccine Collaborative, or RADVAC. They designed the vaccine after looking at reports outlining vaccines against other illnesses caused by coronaviruses, such as MERS and SARS. In borrowed labs, they mixed together mail-order ingredients in hopes of finding a formula that would be simple to make with easily obtainable materials.
Earlier this month, they posted a white paper giving people instructions on how to make the vaccine themselves. The only equipment needed is a magnetic stirring device and a pipette. Four authors are named in the paper, and dozens more are identified only by initials.
Their vaccine is a “subunit” vaccine, which means it contains fragments of the pathogen. It uses peptides, what are short pieces of protein that match a part of the coronavirus but aren’t capable of causing the disease on their own. The peptides are mixed with chitosan, which is taken from shrimp shells, to help them get across the mucous membrane.
The vaccine is delivered nasally, which means it could, at least in theory, lead to mucosal immunity that offers protection in the airway. Church believes that nasal delivery is an overlooked option when it comes to coronavirus vaccines. Right now, just five of the 199 coronavirus vaccines that are in development are delivered nasally, despite the fact that some researchers believe it’s the best method.
Experts are skeptical
Even Big Pharma experts aren’t sold on the idea. Wyeth’s former head of vaccines, George Siber, told MIT Technology Review that there is a dangerous side effect known as antibody dependent enhancement (ADE) to contend with. This occurs when a vaccine makes the disease it is meant to prevent worse. While you might argue that someone aligned with pharmaceutical companies could feel threatened by homemade vaccines, this is an effect that has already been seen in animal studies of COVID vaccines.
Siber said he can’t think of any subunit vaccine that is delivered nasally and isn’t sure it would be strong enough to be effective, reiterating that it could even have the opposite effect. Needless to say, it is very interesting to hear a former Big Pharma vaccine head admit that vaccines can make some illnesses worse.
Meanwhile, New York University Langone Medical Center bioethicist Arthur Caplan called the idea “off-the-charts loony.” He pointed out that there is no way to ensure quality control, and there’s a significant risk of harm.
Even the group itself can’t say if it works. They haven’t published any results showing that their vaccine does indeed create antibodies against the virus. Nevertheless, they’ve managed to convince some friends and colleagues to try it. They claim that 70 people have already concocted their own version and taken it.
Another question is whether or not this is legal. Because people are mixing it up and taking it themselves, they believe that the FDA cannot stop them. However, their white paper contains extensive disclaimers and says that those who try it are responsible for what happens to them.
If vaccines that have years of safety studies backing them up still manage to injure and kill a concerning number of people, imagine what could happen if you took an untested, homemade vaccine and sprayed it up your nose. It seems like a lot of trouble and risk to take on to maybe reduce your risk of COVD-19, which is something that could also potentially be accomplished simply by wearing a mask and eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc.
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