The Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative, or RaDVaC, is a group of scientists working on an open-source, low-tech COVID-19 vaccine costing pennies per dose; but it’s not yet proven to work, and regulators have no green light.
For the millions of people worldwide who have no access to hard-to-get Covid-19 vaccines, a group of Boston-area scientists has a potential solution. And it’s literally a solution you snort in hopes of warding off the deadly virus.
The group is called the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative, or RaDVaC, and its vaccine is so easy to make that its chief scientist, Preston Estep, said in my kitchen we could whip it. We did so.
The drawbacks are: The vaccine is not proven to work and has no regulatory authority. It also hasn’t gone through huge, lengthy, costly clinical trials like Moderna Inc., Pfizer Inc., AstraZeneca Plc, and Johnson & Johnson. The main testing ground for the vaccine is the scientists themselves and other colleagues, like George Church of Harvard Medical School, who believe the project has merit.
It has low-cost, low-tech production. Shots can be made for as little as a dime each, and it took less than an hour to mix in my home – less time to make a loaf of bread.
“It’s actually easier than many cookbook recipes,” said Estep, who wrote a food book that promotes brain longevity.
All materials—saline solution, small pieces of coronavirus-like proteins, and cross-linking chemicals including one called shellfish chitosan and insect carapaces—can be purchased online without special licenses or permits. And the recipe is open-source, so anyone can use it.
“We want to design for others,” Estep said. “So we’re sharing the design and start making the vaccine, then we’re testing it on ourselves.”
The Vaccine process is in progress
Both rich and poor countries still don’t have enough Covid vaccine to go around. Jutta Paulus, a Green Party member from Germany, said she spoke to EU regulators, her health ministry, and the World Health Organization about supporting and testing RaDVac’s vaccine. The trained pharmacist turns to non-governmental organizations, foundations, without success.
“I’d have taken this vaccine experimentally,” Paulus said, who hadn’t received any vaccine herself. “My personal belief is that the risk is low and I wouldn’t expect many adverse reactions, but it should be investigated.”
A cheap, easily produced vaccine could be huge when the next pandemic hits, Paulus said. And that’s when, not when people keep coming into contact with new, potentially dangerous viruses spreading in the animal world.
Here’s how the vaccine should work: The vaccine is essentially an amalgam of portions of coronavirus proteins recognized by the immune system. RaDVaC takes those pieces, called peptides, and uses chitosan to pull them together into virus-like nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles have a positive charge and are attracted to the negatively charged nasal lining when snorted. Scientists hope the particles will be recognised by the body’s immune system, which would then prime protective antibodies and T-cells in case of a real infection. Protecting nasal tissue is key, because the virus is thought to frequently enter the body. Animal experiments showed the idea to work, Estep said.
Because the vaccine is easy to make, it’s relatively easy to modify. RaDVaC is already in its 10th version, which includes copies of virus portions not included in commercial vaccines. Other components are designed to protect against new variants in the UK, Brazil, and South Africa. Big vaccine-makers are just beginning to test versions targeting these mutants in humans.
“We have the first vaccine addressing these concerns,” Estep said. “Because we’re not constrained by all these clinical trials and regulatory hoops, we can start making and testing these designs very quickly.”
In April, a Visitor Estep arrived at my door on a Wednesday afternoon with a cardboard box and a mini-cooler. A magnetic stirring plate, beaker, pipetting equipment, and sterilizing agent were inside the box. The cooler kept peptides and chitosan.
Doubling his gloved hands in isopropyl alcohol at every step of the way, Estep showed me how to mix peptides and chitosan slowly into nanoparticles, invisible to the naked eye. We let it sit for a few minutes, then he sprayed the solution into his nose for the 10th time, he said. Side effects are minimal.
“There’s usually some nasal congestion, but that’s going away soon,” he said.
The disclaimer list on RaDVaC’s website is quite long. The group doesn’t guarantee the vaccine works, and its efforts are not medical advice. It doesn’t provide ingredients or manufacturing equipment. I didn’t take the Estep vaccine made because the group may have legal problems providing a vaccine directly to anyone.
But RaDVaC continues to mainstream its simple vaccine. Talks are underway with governments to engage in challenge trials, involving deliberate attempts to infect vaccinated and unvaccinated volunteers with SARS-CoV-2. Studies carry some risk but are an effective way to determine if the solution works at a minimal cost.
“From the outset, we made it a priority that everything is free and open-source,” he said. “Many emerging economies are last on the vaccine access list. They’re extremely worried, they have no options now. The thing these governments are beginning to realise is that if they had production control, they wouldn’t have to negotiate these contracts, they wouldn’t have to be last in line—they could just design and make it. “
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