This Seattle man peddled a coronavirus 'vaccine.' He says he's injected himself and others
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not licensed a coronavirus vaccine, although a series of clinical trials are underway.
But a microbiologist in Seattle has come under fire for claiming to have made one. He says he has administered it to others, including his son, who is a minor, and himself. He won’t say how many people he’s injected altogether.
On Monday, March 2, in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., a Seattle man made a grandiose claim on his Facebook page: He said he had created a vaccine that could protect against Covid-19.
That man is Johnny T. Stine, an entrepreneur and microbiologist. He later told KUOW he had downloaded the virus’s genome sequences from a Chinese database to create his "vaccine." Doing so "literally took half a day to design,” he said.
Stine, 55, has faced backlash — from state officials and in online forums — for that Facebook post. Many have wondered why he would recklessly peddle an unlicensed substance when conventional scientists estimate a safe coronavirus vaccine won’t be on the market until 2021, at the earliest.
Stine and supporters view him as a nonconformist, moving faster than the establishment to mitigate the virus’s impact. Others see him as a “snake oil salesman,” preying on fear amid a global health crisis.
On Facebook, Stine said he would administer the supposed vaccine for $400 to the first 100 people to request it.
“No government or corporation is ever going to protect us. We are the ones who have to look out for each other," Stine continued in the Facebook post, which is no longer publicly viewable.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson of Washington state sent Stine a cease-and-desist letter on April 23, after KUOW presented state officials with questions about his online claims.
"After receiving information indicating that you are selling and administering a Covid-19 'vaccine,' I had an investigator review some of your Facebook posts," Ferguson wrote to Stine. "The investigator observed that you are making false or unsupported claims about your so-called 'vaccine' that may mislead consumers during the public health emergency related to the Covid-19 pandemic."
Stine North Coast Biologics Cease And Desist Letter
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent microbiologist Johnny T. Stine a cease and desist letter on Thursday, April 23, 2020, on the basis of Facebook posts he wrote advertising a supposed Covid-19 vaccine he created.
Stine, who has a professional background in developing antibody drugs for cancer patients, said in his Facebook post that it wasn’t the first time he’d “crossed some major lines.” He said he had previously created “personalized tumor vaccines for people who wish to actually fight for their life with legitimate tools, knowledge, and skills that I’ve acquired over the years."
“I did this with a GREAT deal of apprehension because I was afraid to do this,” he continued. “It took me longer than it should have to break through the conventional ‘wisdom’ forced on me by my industry, I personally feel that some of the earliest people who asked for my help died because I failed to garner enough courage to make this leap.”
To date, the Food and Drug Administration has not licensed a Covid-19 vaccine, as clinical research is still underway. The agency has issued 42 warning letters as of May 6 to companies purporting to have products that prevent, treat, or cure the disease.
Stine isn't among them.
The Attorney General’s office also alerted the Federal Trade Commission about Stine's posts on Facebook, said spokesperson Brionna Aho.
Ferguson's letter says that Stine's marketing violates the state's Consumer Protection Act, "which makes unfair or deceptive acts or practices illegal in trade or commerce in Washington."
"You must immediately stop making misrepresentations about your COVID-19 'vaccine,'" the notice reads. "Continuing to do so may result in a lawsuit against you and the imposition of civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation."
KUOW also reached out to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about Stine's claims. Spokesperson Monique Richards pointed to federal regulations mandating that "to lawfully market a drug that is also a biological product, a valid biologics license must be in effect."
However, Richards declined to comment on whether the agency had received, or was investigating, complaints related to Stine's supposed coronavirus vaccine, citing agency policy.
Stine refuted that he's out to scam people, and said he isn't looking to make a profit.
"My fee barely pays for everything that I do — from travel, to lab supplies, to rent," he told KUOW. "I'm obviously not a good business man — I can barely pay my rent."
Stine responded to the Attorney General's office on April 29, stating that he "will comply with all requests" and would "delete any references to a vaccine" on his Facebook profile.
Stine told KUOW that his intention was to offer his supposed vaccine to family members and those in his immediate circle, despite his public promotion of the injections online.
"Tons of people with my degree and background, they're using their degrees to tell you to walk six feet apart and wash your hands," Stine said. "I'm making a goddamn vaccine."
Science or pseudoscience?
Stine, who's founded three biotech companies since 2005, claims to have created the supposed coronavirus vaccine in question in late January, as part of a 3 a.m. passion project.
He downloaded genome sequences, which outline the genetic composition of the novel coronavirus, that had been uploaded to an online database by Chinese officials. That way, he wouldn't need live samples of the virus to create an immunogen, the infectious agent used in a vaccine to induce immunity.
Scientists leading official coronavirus vaccine efforts have also used the sequences Stine downloaded. Stine said the mixture he created himself consists of saline and SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which the coronavirus uses to invade the body's cells.
"Anthony Fauci did that, I did it — we all downloaded the spike protein sequence, because that is the only [immunological] target for this virus," Stine said.
KUOW spoke to Dr. Marion Pepper with the University of Washington's Department of Immunology about Stine's claims. Pepper researches how an initial infection can create long-term protection against subsequent disease — the underlying mechanism of successful vaccination.
She said she did not disagree with the logic Stine outlined surrounding the creation of his supposed vaccine – but that making a safe vaccine isn’t as simple as he’s made it out to be.
"That goes along with the overall strategy of a lot of different vaccines, right? You take a protein from the virus, and you use it to activate the immune system against that protein," Pepper said. "Then you build up the immune system to recognize that virus, so that if you ever see it later, you're going to be protected from it."
But while the underpinnings of Stine's approach to creating a Covid-19 vaccine may be sound, the execution is not, Pepper said.
"How you inject that protein, where you inject that protein, what you inject with that protein, how sterile the protein is ... the effects of that specific mixture of that protein," are considerations in determining safety when it comes to vaccines, she said.
Stine holds two bachelor's degrees — one in microbiology and another in zoology — from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. He said he began working on a PhD in molecular pathology of cancer at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in 1989, but didn’t complete it. He also worked at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis while in that doctoral program.
Stine's first company, Spaltudaq, raised $34 million in venture capital funding within three years to develop targeted antibody drugs for cancer patients. But Stine said he didn't like relying on venture capitalists, likening their financial expectations to having a gun to his head.
So he forged a less traditional path.
"They want you to find assets in billion-dollar markets, or you're a failure," he said. "When you're under that kind of pressure most of your adult life, you tend to take advantage of technology that's available."
Stine founded a third biotech company, North Coast Biologics, in 2008. His lab was previously located in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. Now he operates out of a garage in a location he won't disclose.
Pepper declined to comment on Stine's educational or professional background. For her, the larger issue is the potential danger of administering an unauthorized substance and calling it a vaccine.
"There are a lot of implications to how the immune system sees introduced proteins," Pepper said. "It can either activate the immune system, or if it doesn't have the right inflammatory conditions, it can basically teach the immune system to ignore it."
In other words, an attempt to immunize could backfire by teaching the body to circumvent protective immune responses, which might have been prompted otherwise.
Stine said he doesn't "think it's ethical to tell people to wait 18 months for something that's available today," and pointed to a pattern of epidemics ending before relevant vaccines are approved for use.
But clinical trials, Dr. Pepper said, exist for a reason.
"They'll first test for safety. And then once they go to the next stage, they'll look to see if the vaccine actually works," she said.
"The way that you do that is you give volunteers the vaccine, and then you see of those who are vaccinated or those who are given some sort of ... placebo vaccine or negative control, what is the difference in how often they get infected?"
The only way to determine that, Pepper said, is by waiting for the body to respond to those stimuli — and you can't cheat time.
She also cited a failed vaccine trial for the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) during the 1960s, in which a vaccine actually invoked more severe symptoms of the virus.
"It's those kinds of experiences that we've had that influence how we approach this process," she said. "It's not just random."
A mayor's endorsement
On April 17, Mayor Farhad Ghatan of Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, shared a post on his Facebook page showing a nearly empty parking lot at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, from which vessels depart to Washington's San Juan Islands. The post was set to "public."
"Should I pop up and get your vaccine started?????" Stine commented.
In what Ghatan told KUOW was intended to be a series of private exchanges on the post, he invited Stine, a friend, to come to Friday Harbor. State and county level mandates restricting nonessential travel had been in place for more than three weeks at that time.
Another commenter confronted Ghatan about the invitation. In response, Ghatan said, "Johnny cannot infect anyone as he has developed a vaccine. He is a pharmaceutical scientist on the forefront."
Since then, Ghatan has had to contend with angry constituents.
"I had never intended for anyone else to know that this was going on," Ghatan said. "This was a private transaction between me and him. And when I say 'transaction,' I just mean he wasn't charging me even as a good friend. He was letting me have this thing."
Ghatan said that his statements about Stine's presumed immunity were in reference to tests Stine said he's taken, showing that he personally has high levels of Covid-19 antibodies — blood proteins that typically protect a person from an infection.
Many scientists, however, have cautioned that research surrounding Covid-19 antibodies is too incomplete to assume how protective they might be.
Ghatan said his invitation to Stine wasn't time specific, and that the two had discussed scheduling a visit in early March, prior to social distancing measures going into effect.
"That was still on my mind when he contacted me through a post on Facebook that said, 'I have time to come up there,'" Ghatan said. "That's when I said, 'Come on — I'm ready.'"
Ghatan knows Stine through a circle of longtime friends who get together regularly for outdoor activities, and said he trusts "him implicitly with health."
Following his Facebook conversation with Ghatan, Stine got into a series of heated online exchanges with members of a Friday Harbor community group.
"You're in my state you f****** c***. I can go wherever I wish," Stine told a woman who said he wasn't welcome on the island.
"What a bunch of dumb f**** you guys are," he said in another comment.
Stine has taken a different tone with those he says support his undertaking. He told KUOW he's built close relationships with clients he's injected with his substance.
"I become an adopted member of their family," Stine said. "They feed me, give me hugs, engage in awesome conversation — I wouldn't trade that for the world."
Stine won't disclose how many people he's injected with the supposed vaccine. However, he said he'd been contacted by roughly 350 people inquiring about the injections, before being contacted by state officials.
But now, Stine said, he's telling people "they have to wait for their FDA-approved vaccine in two years, when this virus is no longer a threat."
Stine said that while he won't continue to market his concoction, he'd be happy to donate his blood — which he claims exhibits high levels of the disease's antibodies after multiple self-injections — for Covid-19 research.