Science, as it is done in most laboratories around the world, advances by careful steps. Medical science in particular can involve months or years of theoretical models, in-vitro testing, and animal trials before first pill, procedure, or needle approaches a human being. But there’s another kind of science. The kind practiced by people who maybe empathized a little too closely with Robert Heinlein characters a little too closely in their youth. These people may occasionally produce great things despite being definitive assholes. And even in medical science, there seem to be plenty of people ready to try on the white lab coat of Rick Sanchez and get their mad on.
That seems to be the case with a group of researchers at MIT and Harvard who have come together around a homebrew COVID-19 vaccine. Forget laboratory models of its action in the body. Forget animal trials. Farewell phases one through whatever. These guys are just putting the concoction in their nose and snorting it.
If anyone who represents themselves as a lawyer has a fool for a client, then any scientists who have themselves for a lab rat better be prepared to be a dead lab rat. That’s certainly the case here. And while scientists willing to risk their lives for a medical breakthrough are a storied tradition—in the sense that they exist mostly in stories—these guys are … well … Yeah.
As MIT Technology Review reports, the group called the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collective formed back in March, at about the time the government was announcing the first steps in what would become “Operation Warp Speed.”
Starting with research done on the related coronaviruses SARS and MERS, the group produced a self-published white paper in July that does pretty much let any reader know what they’re getting into. It starts off with a section on informed consent and “self-experimentation,” and from there goes on through headers noting that this is not medical advice, doesn’t promise to be effective, is not a clinical trial, is not approved by the FDA, and has the risk of pretty much everything. Where everything can be an allergic reaction, unforeseen long-term effects, risk of infection, and a serious risk that even if none of those things occur, it simply will not work to give any protection against COVID-19.
Those who hang in there past this point get filled in on the background of that SARS / MERS research and the relative efficiency of vaccines vs. therapeutic treatments—all of which is absolutely straightforward and sensible. They also note that in addition to be ineffective, there are a few rare cases where attempts to make a vaccine have actually ended up making subsequent infection by the disease worse. One of these cases is Dengue fever, a disease well known for being relatively mild the first time you catch it, then increasingly awful (its nickname is “bone break fever”) every time it recurs. So it’s not surprising that an attempt to develop a Dengue vaccine might make the disease worse rather than blocking infection. What’s less encouraging is that on this list of “they tried to fix it and ended up doubling down on infection” is SARS—COVID-19’s not at all distant cousin.
The paper then describes how they went out of their way to avoid one of the least-liked things about any vaccine, and a big obstacle to having a vaccine that can be “self-administered”: the needle. To obtain a wholly snort-able vaccine while still being effective, they’ve laid this out as an initial huff followed by several booster sucks. They even cite evidence that one potential SARS vaccine-elicited rapid antibody response in nasal membranes, providing better immediate protection than an injection. Which seems almost reasonable, until you remember that they have zero—that would be zero—evidence to measure the effectiveness of this I-suppose-we’ll-call-it vaccine. Not so much as an antibody test from a gerbil hit with an inhaler loaded with this stuff. If there’s a really good thing to be found in this paper, it’s that the next step is not “We based this off of live vaccine …” Instead, the paper makes a lengthy defense of the idea that the polysaccharide Chitosan (found in shrimp shells and so-called nutrition shops) and a series of peptides found in the SARS-CoV-2 virus are sufficient to generate the necessary immune response. Much of this is drawn from the previous SARS research … but again, there is absolutely no evidence that the vaccine works as described, much less that it provides immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The availability of the peptides is the biggest obstacle to anyone wanting to whip up a batch of home brew, but RADVAC has been offering the vaccine to an expanding circle. At least 70 people have the materials. An unknown number have taken it. The original group theorizes that because they’re only handing out the white paper, complete with all those caveats, and a few simple supplies, the FDA isn’t going to come after them. It’s quite likely that they’re in for a surprise.
Does it work? They don’t know. Members of the core group don’t seem to have been infected, but then, that only puts them with 90% of the American population that’s in the same boat. The fact that they can’t even be sure about who has taken it means that it’s impossible to tell how effective it might be if it’s effective at all.
But if you’re really in the mood to shoot some shrimp up your nose … ask around the nearly deserted campus at MIT. And you might also consider applying to the League.