For the millions of people around the world who don’t have access to hard-to-get Covid-19 vaccines, a group of Boston-area scientists has a potential solution. And it’s literally a solution, one that you snort in hopes of warding off the deadly virus.
The group is called the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative, or RaDVaC, and their vaccine is so easy to make that its chief scientist, Preston Estep, said we could whip it up in my kitchen. So we did.
Drawbacks: The vaccine isn’t proven to work, and it doesn’t have regulatory authorization. It also hasn’t gone through huge, lengthy, costly clinical trials like those undertaken by Moderna Inc., Pfizer Inc., AstraZeneca Plc and Johnson & Johnson. The main testing ground for the vaccine is RaDVaC’s scientists themselves and other colleagues like Harvard Medical School’s George Church, who believe the project has merit.
What it does have is low-cost, low-tech production. Shots can be made for as little as a dime each and took less than an hour to mix together in my home – less time than it would take to make a loaf of bread.
“It’s actually easier than a lot of recipes in cookbooks,” said Estep, who has written a book on foods that promote brain longevity.
All the materials – saline solution, small pieces of proteins that are similar to those of the coronavirus, and cross-linking chemicals including one called chitosan that’s made from shellfish and insect carapaces – can be bought online with no special licenses or permission. And the recipe is open-source, meaning anyone can use it.
“We want other people to have the design,” Estep said. “So we share the design and start making the vaccine, and then we start testing it on ourselves.”
In both rich and poor countries, there’s still not enough Covid vaccine to go around. Jutta Paulus, a Green Party member of the European Parliament from Germany, said she’s spoken with European Union regulators, its health ministry and the World Health Organization about backing and testing RaDVac’s vaccine. Without success, the trained pharmacist is turning to non-governmental organizations and foundations.
“I would have taken this vaccine experimentally,” said Paulus, who hasn’t received any vaccine herself. “My personal belief is that the risk is low, and I wouldn’t expect a lot of adverse reactions, but it has to be investigated.”
A cheap, easily produced vaccine could be a hugely important when the next pandemic hits, Paulus said. And that’s when, not if, as people continue to come into contact with more new, potentially dangerous viruses spreading in the animal world.
Here’s how the vaccine is supposed to work: The vaccine is essentially an amalgam of portions of coronavirus proteins that the human immune system recognizes. RaDVaC takes those pieces, called peptides, and uses chitosan to pull them together into nanoparticles that are similar in size to viruses.
The nanoparticles have a positive charge, and when they’re snorted, they’re attracted to the negatively charged nasal lining. The scientists hope the particles will be recognized by the body’s immune system, which would then prime protective antibodies and T-cells to respond in the event of a real infection. Protecting nasal tissue is key, because that’s where the virus is thought to frequently enter the body. The idea has been shown to work in animal experiments, Estep said.
Because the vaccine is so simple to make, it’s also relatively easy to modify. RaDVaC is already on its 10th version, which includes copies of portions of the virus that aren’t included in commercial vaccines. Other components are designed to protect against new variants that emerged in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa. Big vaccine-makers are just beginning to test versions targeted against these mutants in people.
“We have the first vaccine that addresses those variants of concern,” Estep said. “Because we’re not constrained by all these clinical trials and regulatory hoops, we can start making these designs and testing them very quickly.”
Estep showed up at my door on a Wednesday afternoon in April toting nothing more than a cardboard box and a mini-cooler. Inside the box were a magnetic stirring plate, a beaker, pipetting equipment and a sterilizing agent. The cooler held the peptides and chitosan.
Dousing his gloved hands in isopropyl alcohol at every step of the way, Estep showed me how to slowly mix the peptides and chitosan to form nanoparticles, invisible to the naked eye. We let it sit for a few minutes, and then he sprayed the solution into his nose for what he said was the 10th time. Side effects are minimal, he said.
“It usually results in some nasal congestion, but that soon goes away,” he said.
The list of disclaimers on RaDVaC’s website is quite long. The group doesn’t guarantee that the vaccine works, and its efforts don’t constitute medical advice. It doesn’t provide ingredients or production equipment. I didn’t take the vaccine Estep made, as it may present legal problems for the group to directly provide vaccine to anyone.
But RaDVaC is continuing to bring its simple vaccine into the mainstream. Talks are underway with governments to get it into challenge trials, which would involve deliberately trying to infect vaccinated and unvaccinated volunteers with SARS-CoV-2. The studies carry some risk but are an efficient way to determine whether the solution works at minimal cost.
“We made it a priority from the very start that everything is free and open-source,” he said. “A lot of emerging economies are last on the list for vaccine access. They’re extremely concerned, they have no options right now. The thing that these governments are starting to realize is that if they had control of production, they wouldn’t have to negotiate these contracts, they wouldn’t have to be last in line — they could just design it and make it.”
(Updates with comment from European Parliament member starting in eighth paragraph.)