Proponents argue self-disseminating vaccines could mean they no longer have to run complex mass vaccination programs. Critics say the vaccines pose many health risks and would also spell the end of informed consent.
In October 2019, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security co-sponsored the “pandemic exercise,” Event 201.
A little more than a year later, when the Event 201 scenario morphed from “hypothetical” to concrete, it became clear that sponsors of the event intended to see the majority of the world vaccinated against COVID-19.
Accomplishing this goal is a “monumental challenge,” however. In the U.S., more than one-third (38% to 45%) of adults continue to decline the unlicensed, Emergency Use Authorization injections, despite a marketing blitz that has included both carrots (ranging from the chance to win cash payments to a free order of fries) and sticks (such as nasty calls to “get personal” and “shun” the unvaccinated).
Although some of the uninjected tell pollsters they plan to eventually get the vaccine, a solid minority remains committed to never doing so. The same pattern appears to hold true globally: Roughly one-third of adults worldwide said they will not take a COVID shot.
While social and behavioral science researchers apply “soft science” techniques in an attempt to maneuver vaccine confidence into more acquiescent territory, bench scientists have a different option potentially waiting in the wings — genetically engineered vaccines that “move through populations in the same way as communicable diseases,” spreading on their own “from host to host.”
Not mainstream (yet)
In theory, self-spreading vaccines (also referred to as self-disseminating or autonomous) can be designed to be either transferable (“restricted to a single round of transmission”) or transmissible (“capable of indefinite transmission).”
Vaccine scientists concede transmissible vaccines “are still not mainstream, but the revolution in genome engineering poises them to become so.”
The makers of self-disseminating vaccines use recombinant vector technology to build genetic material from a target pathogen onto the “chassis” of a viral vector deemed “benign,” “innocuous” or “avirulent.” This is similar to the viral vector approach used to produce the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca COVID vaccines.
For Johns Hopkins, the appeal of vaccines that are intentionally engineered to be self-disseminating seems obvious. The university’s Center for Health Security made its case explicit in a 2018 report, “Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks.” The report stated, “These vaccines could dramatically increase vaccine coverage in human … populations without requiring each individual to be inoculated.”
Further spelling out the utilitarian implications of self-disseminating vaccines, the report’s authors stated, “only a small number of vaccinated individuals would be required to confer protection to a larger susceptible population, thus eliminating the need for mass vaccination operations.”
From a programmatic standpoint, this strategy would have the advantage of being “cheaper than vaccinating everyone by hand.” Perhaps even more significantly, however, it would override one of the “thorny ethical questions” that mass vaccination programs routinely wrestle with: informed consent.
As the university’s Center for Health Security briefly acknowledgedin its report, self-disseminating vaccines would essentially make it impossible for “those to whom the vaccine subsequently spreads” to provide informed consent at all.
Blame the animals
Writing in 2020 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers observed that viral zoonoses (diseases theorized to jump from animals to humans) have become an entrenched part of the “global mindset” and a central element of the pandemic-obsessed global health zeitgeist.
Despite SARS-CoV-2’s unproven zoonotic origins (cast into doubt by figures such as Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the past year’s coronavirus hype has helped reinforce the popular perception that wildlife populations represent a menacing cauldron of latent viral threats — requiring only the right set of circumstances to spring into humanity-endangering action.
Parlaying the COVID moment into a convenient scientific opportunity, researchers suggest that the purported “failure to contain the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic” furnishes a rationale for accelerating the rollout of self-disseminating vaccines. As some journalists have phrased the question du jour, “Wouldn’t it be great if wild animals could be inoculated against the various diseases they host so that those microbes never get a chance to spread to humans?”
Transmissible-vaccine research also has ascended the list of funding priorities for government agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, reportedly, donors such as the Gates Foundation.
At least officially, the primary focus of self-spreading vaccine research has thus far been on wildlife populations. Although the practice of direct wildlife vaccination (for example, against rabies) has been around since the 1960s, it is the longstanding efforts to develop sterilizing vaccines in wildlife (euphemistically called “immunocontraception”), as well as recent advances in genetic engineering, that “have provided a foundation for transmissible-vaccine research.”
Researchers explain how the targeting of wildlife reservoirs is intended to work:
“The idea, essentially, is to vaccinate a small proportion of a [wildlife] population through direct inoculation. These so-called founders will then passively spread the vaccine to other animals they encounter either by touch, sex, nursing, or breathing the same air. Gradually, these interactions could build up population-level immunity.”
When put to the test by Spanish researchers in a limited field trial in rabbits, about 50% of the unvaccinated rabbits developed antibodies after being housed with vaccinated rabbits who had received a transmissible vaccine either via injection or orally. When the researchers assessed second-generation transmission (that is, development of antibodies in another batch of rabbits moved in with the first batch of unvaccinated rabbits), the transmission rate was much lower (two of 24 rabbits).