Most of us are used to thinking of vaccines as a preventative treatment for bacterial and viral diseases — you expose the immune system to a dead or weakened version of the disease, and your body learns how to fight it off in the future. It turns out you can use vaccines to train the body to fight off all sorts of things, including drugs like cocaine.
The way the cocaine vaccine works is by combining norcocaine, a drug very similar to cocaine, with an inactivated common cold virus. When the immune system tries to fight off the virus, it creates antibodies to the virus and to the drug. Then, if someone who’s received the vaccine in the past tries to abuse the drug, their body attacks the cocaine and destroys it before it can reach the brain and have any mind-altering effects.
So far, the vaccine has worked well in lab rats and non-human primates, both lowering the amount of cocaine in the blood directly after receiving a dose, and resulting in animals who seem to be less likely to develop an addiction in the first place. The results have been so promising that one study is on its way to human clinical trials.
It’s not yet clear exactly how long the effects would last in humans, as the vaccine has only been shown to remain effective for about 13 weeks in mice and 7 weeks in primates. It’s possible addicts in recovery would need booster shots every few weeks.
The vaccine is a promising treatment option for narcotics addicts who just can’t kick their drug habit — currently, there are very few effective medical treatments for treating addiction. But what if doctors or policymakers decide to require the vaccine be given to populations that are merely “at risk” for developing an addiction?
Is it ethical to inject children or teens with the vaccine to prevent them from potentially abusing hard drugs in the future? Would it be ethical to force pregnant addicts to take the vaccine to protect their unborn children from developmental problems or birth defects? Will we require welfare recipients to take the vaccine? Will health insurance cover the cost?
The vaccine also isn’t without risks for cocaine addicts. People who already know what kind of high to expect from cocaine might try to compensate for the diminished effects by simply taking larger doses of the drug — potentially resulting in overdose.
At the moment, researchers are also working on vaccines for other drugs, including methamphetamine, heroin and nicotine, which work in a similar way. As these vaccines get closer and closer to approval, the American public is going to have to start asking some tough questions about addiction and free will.
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