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Opinion: Even in a pandemic, how comfortable would you feel about open-source vaccine?

My hands shake as I scroll through the website. Trembling thumbs do not inspire confidence. I hardly have the steadiness to text effectively under pressure, let alone to “aliquot” homemade inoculant “into sterile capped microfuge” in order to complete a hot-off-the-internet, open-source COVID-19 vaccine recipe. 

Come to think of it, my performance in undergraduate chemistry labs does not inspire confidence either. That settles it. I will not be making my own intranasal COVID vaccine. 

But you could. 

I cautiously present to you the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative (RaDVaC), a nonprofit, creative-commons licensed brigade of “citizen scientists” offering what they claim is an effective do-it-yourself immunization “as a necessary act of compassion.”

Eerily stingy with specifics out of the gate, four well connected scientists are apparently joined by a burgeoning group of scientific renegades to cooperate in an unconventional, and timely task: arming the people against SARS-CoV-2 during this liminal time before a commercially produced vaccine is ready. 

Dana Egleston

The RaDVaC site is straightforward and easy to navigate. The method is concise, and materials and tools are “commercially available to purchase.”  The FAQ section anticipated my reflexive questions. 

RaDVaC’s Terms of Use, which must be agreed to before accessing the detailed “white paper,” can be reduced to: (1) you are an adult and you take responsibility for everything; (2) there is risk even if you do it right; (3) no promises, this isn’t medical advice; (4) might prevent, doesn’t treat; (5) this is not a clinical trial nor is this supported/reviewed by the FDA; (6) some things could happen; and (7) this is “self-experimentation.”

So, RaDVaC is just gonna leave this here …(wink). “This” being all the information needed to produce a synthetic, peptide-based vaccine. RaDVaC’s sample group (founders included) is 20 people so far, but growing.

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I’ve never taken peptide therapeutics, but have considered using delta-sleep inducing peptide (DSIP) for insomnia. Peptides are amino acid sequences that are thought to enhance receptor binding areas on a cell’s surface, which are used in RaDVac’s context for “immunogenic stimulation,” to hone white blood cells’ response to the virus. DSIP seemed easy, and relatively low risk, but wasn’t the right choice for me at the time. 

The time is right for a COVID-19 solution, though. Communal urgency has pushed for this dynamic and, maybe, dangerous innovation. The collective voice speaking on RaDVaC’s website makes their intentions clear: 

“The death toll is large and growing, but many more who survive the initial infection will suffer serious enduring complications.” They want to minimize the damage. 

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The masked smarties are serving up Wikileaks realness with their unpatented method. They might even be throwing pharmaceutical giants some shade with this radical act. One of their provocations: 

“Existing public health, commercial, and regulatory infrastructures have thus far failed to provide a vaccine to protect humanity – especially our most vulnerable – against the pandemic.”

Critics of profit-driven Big Pharma will be stoked on these biochemical Robin Hoods, despite RaDVaC’s assurance to interested “collaborators” that they are not “anti-FDA,” “anti-regulation,” “anti-pharma” or “anti-biotech.” 

RaDVaC also fires a direct “shot” at the anti-vax community: “Vaccines have become associated with negative outcomes that do not result from the vaccine, but that occur immediately following administration.” 

This echoes a looping sentiment in science, that correlation is not causation. It feels like RaDVaC is bridging the gap between America’s money-hungry Xanny-pushers and science-denying sensationalists — if the spray works. 

I’m spooked by the unknown “long-term safety” and potential margin for error inherent in RaDVaC’s route, as citizens would be concocting medical therapeutics on their own without guidance or oversight. I’m not too concerned about the qualified students and professionals equipped with proper lab equipment, but more for the at-home MacGyvers and citizen savants making adaptations and substitutions on the fly. 

Am I gonna mix this up myself? Absolutely not. Spritz, spritz, skip. 

Am I interested in seeing what this buildable, open-research model will mean for the future? Absolutely. 

MIT Technology Review recently synthesized the concerns of a few RaDVaC skeptics. George Siber, former head of vaccines at a prominent pharmaceutical company, questioned the vaccine’s potency, delivery method and the efficacy of short-chain peptides in eliciting the desired immune response. He also warned of disease “enhancement” as a dangerous complication, according to the MIT article.

Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, cut right to it and deemed RaDVaC’s white paper “off-the-chart-loony.” To paraphrase, he thinks it’s highly risky and structurally unsound. 

Still, with support from some of the Ivy League’s finest, like Harvard’s  famed geneticist George Church, who has also “self-experimented” with the vaccine, citizen scientists are out here, “doing it live” in the proverbial, and pharmacological, sense.

Some of us have really elevated our home-cooking game in these few months of quarantine, but COVID-blocking sauce won’t be featured on my kitchen menu anytime soon. 

For now, I’ll stick to sourdough starter. 


Dana Egleston is a writer, science communicator and environmentalist living in Denver.


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