DIY vaccine maker aims to beat pharma to a COVID-19 shot—and he'll start by injecting himself

The biohacker who injected himself with CRISPR is back. This time, he’s setting out to solve a problem at the forefront of everyone’s mind—the need for a COVID-19 vaccine—and he thinks he can beat biopharma to it.

Nevermind that companies like Moderna and AstraZeneca are racing vaccine candidates into and through the clinic at a speed never seen before, and the U.S. government has set up a Manhattan Project-style initiative aptly dubbed “Operation Warp Speed,” which aims to deliver 100 million doses of a viable COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year. That’s still too slow for Josiah Zayner.

“This is the perfect opportunity for biohackers,” Zayner told Bloomberg. “We can move science faster.”

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His plan is based off a Science paper published in May showing that a DNA vaccine seemed to provoke an immune response against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The researchers developed multiple vaccines expressing different forms of the virus’ spike protein and tested them in monkeys.

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Along with collaborators in Mississippi and Ukraine, Zayner wants to reproduce that experiment in humans—themselves—and livestream the process over several weeks, Bloomberg reported.

“They said specifically what they used, which is really easy to recreate,” Zayner told Bloomberg, speaking from the West Oakland, California, headquarters and lab of his company, The Odin. “You know, it works in monkeys. Let's test it on humans.”

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The scheme, dubbed Project McAfee, after the antivirus software, is possible thanks to the availability of new tools and technologies—including viral DNA—to the general public. Zayner ordered the same spike protein the researchers used in their DNA vaccine from a DNA synthesis company, having it put in a solution that could be injected into his muscles, Bloomberg reported.

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Zayner and his partners plan to inject themselves with the vaccine and then take antibody tests regularly to see if their bodies mount an immune response, Bloomberg reported.

Zayner and David Ishee, one of his partners and a self-taught scientist in Mississippi, think the project could pierce the veil on biotech research and scientific experiments.

“I want people to learn something from this,” he said, “So it's no longer this big black box of what science, clinical trials and all this stuff is,” Zayner told Bloomberg.

“I would like to see a future where biotech is less arcane,” Ishee said. “But the most realistic thing that will come of this is that maybe people will understand the news they’re reading better.”

But Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford University, said the approach has its limits.

“If he has and uses the appropriate biosafety precautions, I see nothing wrong with his efforts to replicate the macaque work in living human cells,” Greely told Bloomberg. “If he can do that, it might be a somewhat useful scientific finding.”

The keywords are “living human cells.” Compare that to the massive clinical trials underway, or soon to be, for vaccines from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and BioNTech. Earlier this month, Moderna finalized the design for a 30,000-patient phase 3 study, while AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford have already started a phase 2/3 study involving more than 10,000 people.

“At best he’ll have three people who have received this DNA vaccine,” he said. “It’s hard for me to see his administration of a vaccine to three people as producing any useful scientific knowledge, except perhaps in the unhappy result that they have terrible reactions to it. But even then, it’s just anecdotal, a caution but not a proof.”

And that’s not all—Zayner may pull off his experiment, but copycats may not.

“Even if he does it well, people copying him poorly could be hurt. And for what?” Greely said. “Uncontrolled experiments with doubtful, non-standardized ingredients and conditions are not likely to lead to scientific knowledge that will produce vaccines faster.”