Seattle entrepreneur Johnny Stine had admittedly grown tired of waiting for regulators to approve drugs his biotech company was developing, including one he promoted as a coronavirus vaccine.
So, last month he offered his COVID-19 solution on social media for $400 to buyers in Washington and beyond. One of those intrigued was the mayor of the San Juan Island town of Friday Harbor, Farhad Ghatan. He caused a social media stir this month by inviting Stine to visit him during a restricted travel period and perhaps have him try the unauthorized vaccine.
In an interview Wednesday, Ghatan, Friday Harbor’s mayor the past 2 1/2 years, described Stine as a longtime friend of 30 years and said he hadn’t intended to make his Facebook message public. Ghatan said he and Stine postponed the planned visit because of the uproar and that he hasn’t tried the vaccine or helped promote it.
“This was a private, one-on-one thing between me and Johnny that got completely blown out of proportion,” Ghatan said. “Realizing this was during travel restrictions and all that, we decided to postpone it and he never came.”
But the fallout saw official complaints lodged with multiple Washington state government agencies, including the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson — who sent Stine a cease-and-desist letter last week warning of possible lawsuits and heavy fines for making “false or unsupported claims’’ about a coronavirus vaccine that doesn’t yet exist.
Several people on Wednesday, under the condition they remain anonymous, forwarded The Seattle Times screen grabs of social media exchanges involving Stine that appear to show he’d distributed unauthorized vaccines in multiple states and possibly Canada, including as recently as two weeks ago in Texas.
Stine has not returned phone calls by The Times, but on Tuesday updated the Facebook page for his North Coast Biologics company to say his “spike protein vaccine’’ is no longer available due to Ferguson’s letter and that “the state of WA would rather you wait two years for your spike protein vaccine while your economy and most people’s lives fall apart in the meantime.’’
Stine went on to write: “Other countries, however, who accept science will be able to provide this vaccine to the masses soon as they aren’t interested in an FDA-like timeline. In times of a pandemic, the course of action to cower and wait two years is unacceptable and unethical when the solutions are right there under your face.’’
Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said Stine emailed them Wednesday afternoon in a more conciliatory tone saying he’ll comply. “While I understand the issues and your role,” he wrote, “I would gladly donate my blood to prove my claims if it helps. If not, consider the case closed.”
Ghatan, 57, said he issued a public apology for extending Stine the invitation amid COVID-19 travel restrictions to the San Juan Islands. He added he didn’t realize Stine had first reached out to him on somebody else’s Facebook post and that his reply would be public instead of private.
He said the controversy amounts to “a few trolls” with “a bottle of booze next to them and a computer in front of them” who are out to get him because of his high-profile position.
“I was not endorsing it in any way to anyone else,” Ghatan said of Stine’s vaccine. “Any comment was between me and him.”
Asked whether he felt it proper for an elected official to offer to try a vaccine not legally approved, he replied: “First of all, he was giving it to me. He wasn’t charging me for it. It was a private transaction between me and him.”
He added Stine was offering him an “immunogen” — an antigen used in vaccines to trigger an immune system response to viruses and other pathogens — he believes was approved by the FDA.
“Maybe what he is claiming that it will do is not legal,” Ghatan said. “If in fact, he is making those claims for profit. I’m not even interested in getting into that argument.”
It’s unclear whether what’s being offered by Stine is FDA-approved for humans for any illness, a regulatory process that can take a decade. There is no vaccine approved for COVID-19, which the FDA says is likely 12 to 18 months away.
In the Facebook post cited in Ferguson’s warning letter, Stine claims he is immune from COVID-19 because of his vaccine and offered it for $400 to the first 100 people who contacted him. And in Facebook exchanges this month with people opposed to Stine visiting Friday Harbor in violation of travel restrictions, Ghatan defended his friend, saying: “Johnny cannot infect anyone as he has developed a vaccine. He is a pharmaceutical scientist on the forefront.”
When one of those people challenged Ghatan on why the media hadn’t reported on Stine having a successful COVID-19 vaccine, the mayor replied: “You need to look deeper than media … There are a number of researchers whose products are in testing right now.”
Earlier in his career, Stine worked as a scientist for a Bothell company, then founded the biotech firm Spaltudaq in 2005 to create targeted cancer drugs with minimal side effects. The company later expanded to include infectious and autoimmune disease antibodies, raising $29 million in venture capital funding by 2007 and changing its name to Theraclone Sciences in 2009.
Stine, meanwhile, in 2008 had moved on to found the smaller North Coast Biologics in Wallingford, operating as somewhat of a one-man show planning to make rabbit-derived antibody drugs for bigger companies that would develop them further.
It’s unclear whether the company is still functional. Washington state’s Department of Revenue website shows it as active, but the Secretary of State’s site indicates the company has been “inactive” since 2012. Stine has maintained social media accounts using the North Coast Biologics name — which was included on the letter from Ferguson.
Since updating his company page Tuesday, Stine appears to have taken it down. But postings to his personal account indicate he’s spent time the past week in Arizona and Montana. Early last week, a Facebook message to him from Arlington, Texas, resident Anita Wrobel stated: “We (5 of us) are six days post first injection and we are all feeling well and no problems. Also, wanted to put this out there for anyone who is feeling unsure. We are so thankful for you, Johnny.’’
Her Facebook message has since been removed. Reached by phone Wednesday, Wrobel declined to comment on what she’d been injected with and how she knew Stine.
During the social media uproar over Stine’s possible visit to Friday Harbor, he tells one woman: “I’m VACCINATING people with the nCoV19 spike protein — it’s a recombinantly expressed protein and … the recipient begins making antibodies to the spike protein, which is also saying that they will be protected from infection.”
To another, he writes: “It’s the same vaccine that is being made by 70 other companies — but you won’t see theirs until 18 months from now. People want help NOW!.”
Another Facebook message sent by Stine about six weeks ago shows him responding to a woman asking why he didn’t ship samples of his vaccine to the government for preapproval for clinical trials. “My vaccine is going straight into people who want to be protected like now,” he replied. “I’m not waiting for the gov on this one.”
He then complains that “some want me to wait until the end of the summer for an FDA-approved vaccine” before adding: “Wait several months for something so trivial that it took me half a day to design?”
Earlier Facebook posts appeared to show Stine has administered other unauthorized vaccines.
A post from last fall shows a red vehicle Stine describes as “a new car — given to me by a thankful cancer survivor.”
Another from last July tells of problems crossing the border at Frontier, Washington, because “the goons” on Canada’s side told him the country’s health department has not approved vaccines he planned to give a woman in British Columbia. “I informed them neither they nor the FDA will approve this type of vaccine because it’s personalized for an individual and thus not suited for an ‘off the shelf’ approach …,” he wrote.
Stine then describes having the woman cross over to the U.S. border town of Northport, where he administered the vaccine in a tavern.
An April 2017 post shows a photo of various vials in a room he describes as being “where I discover and make my drugs (antibodies) which are then given illegally to cancer patients.”