President Trump unveiled a plan to combat the opioid crisis in early March. The plan was criticized for its suggested death penalty to high-level drug dealers and return to heavy-handed law enforcement. One overlooked component of the plan was the allocation of funds for research into opioid vaccines. Vaccines could be a game-changer for millions of people already addicted to drugs. Currently, the only vaccine being researched is heroin.
Scientists at the Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) have been working on a heroin vaccine that induces antibodies and is meant to stop the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier in mice and rats, rendering its effects useless. The vaccine is a cooperative effort with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funded the study.
The vaccine was formulated explicitly for heroin. While many people would hope that the vaccine blocks the effect of other opioids, researchers say that a vaccine like that is dangerous and harmful.
People cannot predict if they will be in a car accident, come down with a terminal or chronically painful disease or condition that requires severe pain relief. For some situations, the pain can send a person into shock.
The current vaccine that researchers are working on does not block methadone, tramadol, fentanyl, sufentanil, nalbuphine and buprenorphine, which leaves options for acute pain treatment if needed for emergency use. Pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen would likely remain effective, leaving the possibility of pain relief on an ongoing basis.
Developing a vaccine for other opioids could be a challenge because many prescription medications work in the almost same manner as each other, which would render many types of powerful pain relief useless when the vaccine recipient had surgery or suffered a painful illness or injury. Doctors believe that this would do harm in the future, so the heroin vaccine is the first vaccine the plan to undertake for now.