KIM JANDA LIKES TO SAY he has engineered immune cells in the lab capable of protecting the human body against virtually “everything that’s walked or crawled”—including some of the most toxic known diseases, including anthrax, botulinum neurotoxin, and ricin. When someone close to Janda developed a drug addiction, it was only natural that the Scripps Research Institute scientist would try to help. Might it be possible, he wondered, to create a pill or a shot that could protect addicts from the consequences of their slips, by neutralizing the drug before it could get them high or cause an overdose? That way, it might be possible to keep addicts from relapsing, which sometimes proves fatal.

The need for such an intervention is more urgent than ever. In the more than two decades since Janda began plugging away on his addiction vaccines, the opioid epidemic took the fast track.

Addiction has claimed 750,000 lives since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Scientists and health care officials in the U.S. have struggled to keep up and develop new responses. The drug cartels have fought to keep their firm grip on addicts with new products that are cheaper and more potent. Their latest is fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is cheap to make and all too easy to overdose on—and may be responsible for a recent rise in the overdose death rate. This year, COVID-19-related developments are adding to the downward spiral.

Over the last three to four months overdose deaths have increased nationwide by close to 15 percent, says Shawn Ryan, Chair of Legislative Advocacy for the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Ryan is also president and chief medical officer of BrightView Health, a 20-site treatment network in Ohio and Kentucky,

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