One Biohacker’s Improbable Bid to Make a DIY Covid-19 Vaccine

Josiah Zanyer is in a rush. 

As Covid-19 continues its march around the globe, scientists have embarked on an unprecedented campaign to develop a vaccine against the disease. There are more than 125 potential vaccines undergoing tests, with 20 in human trials. And the U.S. program, Operation Warp Speed,  has set the ambitious goal of a vaccine for early 2021.

But that unheard-of pace in vaccine development isn’t fast enough for Zayner, a one-time NASA scientist who left mainstream science to proselytize the value of do-it-yourself home experiments. 

“This is the perfect opportunity for biohackers,” he said. “We can move science faster.”

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Zayner is infamous in some circles for attention-grabbing experiments that have included injecting himself with the gene-editing tool Crispr while giving a talk at a San Francisco biotech conference. So on May 20, when a group of researchers from institutions including Harvard University published a paper demonstrating a DNA vaccine that appeared to trigger protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, Zayner saw an opportunity.

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

Easily Reproduced

He intends to not only reproduce the monkey experiment in humans, but also, along with two collaborators in Mississippi and Ukraine, livestream the entire process over the course of several weeks with the aim of showing others the ease with which such scientific findings can be reproduced. They have nicknamed the endeavor Project McAfee, after the antiviral software. The corresponding authors of the study Zayner is basing his DIY experiment on declined comment on his plan to test the vaccine on himself. 

Zayner has a loyal following. The fast-moving science of genome editing has made engineering biology increasingly simple, in some cases as easy as rewriting a piece of computer code. And a growing cadre of DIY types have argued that this cutting-edge science should be easily available to anyone outraged by exorbitant drug prices — or anyone simply curious to give such experiments a whirl at home.

But these DIY experiments haven’t always gone according to plan, and that’s raised safety worries among established scientists. 

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

What enables a DIY enthusiast like Zayner to reproduce such an experiment is a proliferation of new scientific tools, alongside companies that allow most anyone to simply order up, say, viral DNA on the internet and have it delivered ready-to-go to their home. In the rhesus macaque experiment, researchers developed an array of so-called DNA vaccines, which use select portions of a virus’ genetic code in an attempt to trigger an antibody-producing immune response from the body, and thus hopefully generate immunity to the virus.

Encouraging Results

In the case of SARS-CoV-2, it is the crown-like spike protein that causes the body to move into action, so researchers developed vaccines expressing different forms of that protein and tested them in 35 monkeys. The results were encouraging: The vaccinated monkeys developed antibodies to the virus and one version of the vaccine appeared able to fend off the virus.

From a DNA synthesis company Zayner was able to order offline the same spike protein sequence that the researchers had used, and have it put in a solution that would allow him to inject the vaccine into his muscles.

“With the pandemic, there's so many tools available to purchase commercially from companies, it creates a perfect opportunity for biohackers to test something like this out on humans,” he said. “That's the logical next step.”

Generally, after trials in monkeys, the next step in vaccine development is to give the vaccine to a small number of people in order to test its safety and dosage, as well as to confirm whether it actually stimulates the human immune system. Zayner and his collaborators have, in essence, volunteered themselves for this task.

“I would like to see a future where biotech is less arcane,” said David Ishee, a self-taught scientist in Mississippi and a collaborator on the project. “But the most realistic thing that will come of this is that maybe people will understand the news they’re reading better.”

Spike Protein

The trio plan to test the vaccine in human cells to ensure those cells produce the spike protein. Then, they will inject themselves with the vaccine, and perform antibody tests on themselves regularly to monitor whether their bodies develop an immune response. All three experimenters were tested at a commercial lab beforehand to ensure they don’t already have antibodies to the virus. 

“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,” said Greely, the Stanford bioethicist. “If he can do that, it might be a somewhat useful scientific finding.”

Moving the work into humans, though, Greely said, seems less useful. 

“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.”

 

So long as they only provide information about how to make a DIY vaccine, rather than distributing the materials to make one, Zayner’s efforts do not fall strictly under the regulatory purview of the Food and Drug Administration, said Patricia Zettler, a former FDA attorney and law professor at Ohio State University.  Still, said Zettler, the FDA has cracked down on unproven and unauthorized Covid-19 products, and so these efforts might attract the agency’s attention. Last year, a complaint prompted the California Medical Board to investigate whether Zayner was practicing medicine without a license, though that investigation was ultimately dropped.

Performance Artist

Zayner has been criticized in the past for playing a role that is part performance artist, part scientist. Many a biohacker has demonstrated a flair for the dramatic, with daredevil stunts such as live-streamed DIY therapy injections. Zayner wants the movement to move beyond that. His biggest hope for Project McAfee is that it will demonstrate to people that they can undertake many scientific experiments at home using good scientific methodology.

Zayner has created an online course entitled Do-It-Yourself: From Scientific Paper to Covid-19 DNA Vaccine so that his viewers may follow along with his work. In the past, his company has hosted online biohacker bootcamp courses, which he says have become The Odin’s most popular offering.

“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.”

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