Scientists design unproven DIY nasal Covid-19 vaccine and test it on themselves, experts concerned over safety

The approach, they believe, is safe and simple. But other experts have expressed their reservations

                            Scientists design unproven DIY nasal Covid-19 vaccine and test it on themselves, experts concerned over safety
(Getty Images)

As experts evaluate potential Covid-19 vaccines in almost every corner of the world, a group of scientists, technologists and other enthusiasts have come up with a time-saving approach: an unproven do-it-yourself (DIY) vaccine against the disease. What is more, the creators have tested the product on themselves and have distributed a few to others — without involving the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The DIY product can be inhaled after mixing the ingredients listed in the recipe. Some of the people involved in the project are scientists from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The approach, they believe, is safe and simple. But other experts have expressed their reservations.

"Our group, the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative (RaDVaC), has produced and first administered the vaccine to ourselves in late April 2020. As of late July, over 20 of us have designed and self-administered a sixth-generation (Gen 6) vaccine," they wrote in their White Paper. The FDA is yet to comment on the matter, but biologist Preston Estep, Chief Scientist and founder of RADVAC, reportedly said that the agency has no jurisdiction over the project. Participants whip up and administer the vaccine by themselves. Besides, the group is not charging people for the product.

What is the vaccine made of?

 When experts predicted that a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months, Estep reached out to some of his acquaintances. He proposed a project to create a DIY vaccine recipe for Covid-19. The goal was to find "a simple formula that you could make with readily available materials. That narrowed things down to a small number of possibilities," he told MIT Technology Review.

The vaccine is made of coronavirus peptides — a shorter version of proteins. These molecules can train the immune system to fight the virus but do not cause an infection, according to the team. According to MIT Technology Review, these peptides are to be mixed with chitosan, a carbohydrate derived from shrimp shells known to trigger the immune response. Describing the experience, Alex Hoekstra, an expert who tested the vaccine on himself, said: it is "like getting saline up your nose. It’s not the world's most comfortable feeling."

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Are oral vaccines promising?

George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University, who also volunteered for the DIY mix, said that the nasal vaccine is simple and effective. Yet, Of the 199 vaccines being tested, only five are designed to be delivered through the nasal passage. Some experts believe vaccines delivered through the nasal passage could do a better job of training the immune cells present in the mucosal region that lines the nose, mouth, lungs and digestive tract. It is the same path that the virus uses to enter the human body.

"Knowing how potent mucosal responses can be against a viral pathogen, it would be ideal to be thinking about mucosal vaccines,” Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, told The New York Times. But she also added that injections to the arm --intramuscular jabs -- are good at protecting people from other respiratory diseases such as measles. “If enough antibodies reach the right mucosal surface, it doesn’t really matter how they were induced.”

Why are experts concerned?

George Siber, the former head of vaccines at Wyeth, told MIT Technology Review that he doubts if RADVAC's peptide vaccine is potent enough to protect against Covid-19. He is not sure about safety either. For instance, certain vaccines are capable of worsening the disease, and that conventional testing rules them out. Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University Langone Medical Center, called RADVAC's vaccine "off-the-charts looney". In an email to MIT Technology Review, he said there is a high "potential for harm" and "ill-founded enthusiasm" with self-experimentation.

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