DIY COVID vaccines: do they work?

Geneticist George Church took a COVID vaccine back in May. Has it succeeded?
09 February 2021

Interview with 

George Church, Nebula Genomics


A COVID-19 nasal vaccine bottle.


We’ve just heard from Josiah Zayner, who engineered a COVID vaccine back in May - and he’s not alone. Around the same time, a separate group of scientists formed an initiative called RaDVaC to quickly synthesise a coronavirus vaccine based on the available evidence. Instead of being a cutting-edge genetic vaccine like the current offerings from Pfizer and Moderna, they used small bits of coronavirus protein called ‘peptides’; and instead of injecting it, you just squirt it up your nose! Rather than going through clinical trials, RaDVaC say their vaccine is one you should make yourself and take yourself. That’s what over 100 geneticists have now done, among them Harvard's George Church. Phil Sansom asked him why...

George - Well there's a long history of...even the modern vaccines, the people developing them feeling that morally the right thing to do is not to test it on somebody that you're unwilling to test on yourself. We did not want to necessarily be first in line, but we felt that if there's any risk, we should take the risk first. These have intrinsically low risk because most of the parts had all been tested, and it's a less medical procedure if nothing else because you're not injecting with a needle.

Phil - Okay, crucial question: do you know if it's worked?

George - What we have so far - and it's very preliminary, not peer reviewed - is that it is safe. Well, safe at the scale that we're using it; sometimes you need to go to hundreds of thousands of people to find an occasional anaphylactic reaction, which there is for some of the messenger RNA doses that are happening with coronavirus. So it's safe, and it seems to be producing some kind of immune reaction in the nasal mucosa, but not in the blood. If you cover the nasal passages and the lungs, you're in great shape.

Phil - You've found some kind of reaction; you don't yet know whether you're immune to the coronavirus?

George - There's been relatively little intentional exposure, so we don't really know. We have the intention to make this go through FDA testing, but we wanted to make sure that it was as transparent as possible and as accessible as possible to everyone, in principle. We put a white paper on the internet that describes exactly how we make and how we test the vaccine. Now in practice, most people are not going to care or act on that.

Phil - Could someone like me make this coronavirus vaccine?

George - Most of it's like a kitchen recipe. The only part that's at all exotic is ordering the peptides; but that's something you order, so it's like you would place an order for any custom item, a photo mug or something. You just send them this recipe that we say, and they make it and they send it back to you. We estimate it's in the order of 50 cents a dose, probably less if it were manufactured at scale.

Phil - Is this sort of democratising the vaccine, or is it closer to trusting people with something that doesn't have the oversight of a state-run vaccine distribution, and that people might hurt themselves with?

George - Most vaccines, you find the negative consequences are quite rare, but you don't find that until you start treating millions of people. The same thing would happen with ours. As soon as we found the negative consequences we would either recommend that people be close to an EpiPen, or otherwise figure out whether they would be at risk or not. But that hasn't happened yet. So far, no negative reactions. I mean, so far we have a better safety record, but that could just be because we have a much smaller cohort size, so it would make too much of that. But I think the critical thing is that you're much safer getting vaccinated than getting exposed to the pathogen. And it's going to be quite a while before we have vaccinated everybody, and so it'd be really nice if you could do the redosing in a convenient way, where we don't have to go into a clinic full of sick people to get an injection.


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