He downed a shot-glass amount of the liquid, knowing it would produce a miserable case of dysentery for the sake of research, he told Insider.
Eberts was one of 16 healthy young adults participating in the 11-day inpatient trial at the University of Maryland in an attempt to test the effectiveness of a Shigella vaccine and received a payday in exchange.
Eberts said the symptoms from the trial resulted in the “worst eight hours of my life” — but would do it all again, if he was paid. For this trial, the university said he earned more than $7,000.
“I don’t want to make myself out to be Mother Teresa here — would not have done this for free. It’s a big ask to ask someone to get dysentery,” Eberts told Insider when he was discharged from the study. “The entire time, I was like, ‘Wow, this is an awful disease.’ And I just got really emotional, probably also because I was just delirious, about the thought of small children in the developing world dealing with this.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Shigella bacteria causes 600,000 deaths annually worldwide. While there is no vaccine available against the misery-causing bacteria, it’s the second-leading cause of diarrhea death, with the No. 1 killer being rotavirus, for which vaccines are available.
Sickness from Shigella is often caused by drinking contaminated water, eating ill-prepared food or coming in contact with someone’s infected bowel movements.
Eberts was part of a Maryland study conducting further research. Scientists also collect data from young kids in Kenya who may come into contact with the bacteria, although they are not given deathly concoctions.
If all goes well in the current phase-two trials, and the vaccine is effective and tolerated, it could be tested on a larger scale. But if the vaccine doesn’t provide at least 50% protection against severe disease, University of Maryland trial leader Dr. Wilbur Chen told Insider, “Then we will have a vaccine that really fails, unfortunately.” He’s hoping for 70% protection.
Eberts thought he had unluckily received placebo injections as part of the unvaccinated group in the trial, since he didn’t noticeably react to the shots — at first.
Unfortunately for him, he ended up having one of the worst cases of dysentery.
His symptoms started about 40 hours after drinking the bacteria, complete with cramps and chills at first. Then, he quickly took a turn for the worst. He had a 103-degree fever, diarrhea and bloody stool.
“I truly felt like I could not move,” Eberts said, calling basic daily movements like going to the bathroom a “Herculean effort.” “Every movement in the bathroom, to get up to wash my hands or to grab a paper towel, I would lie back down on the ground and just sit there for five minutes.”
Nurses gave him liters of rehydration solution — or “sad Gatorade,” as Eberts called it — which was a sweet and salty solution, with no delicious flavoring or color, meant to keep him functioning. Eventually, he was given the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, and within four hours, he began to improve, going from “death’s door” to feeling more alive with the ability to walk and talk “with a little bit of effort.”
“I was exhausted and felt miserable, but I didn’t feel fear,” he said. “I knew this is something I signed up for, and it will pass, and I’m not going to die or anything. But even if I had been just at home and had somehow come across this, I would’ve been terrified, because it was just awful. And the deterioration was so rapid.”
“If I did get the vaccine, that is really bad news for the vaccine,” he continued.
Since people with Shigellosis can infect others, trial participants were forced to stay inside and eat alone during the whole 11- to 12-day study. Even using the restroom was a multistep process, involving a special toilet “hat,” an accompanying nurse and some bleach.
Eberts had to relieve himself in the toilet hat, place it in a biohazard bag and carry it down the hall to researchers who would extract samples from it. Once the nurses took what they needed for the study, he would pour the rest of his bodily waste into the toilet and douse it with bleach, waiting five minutes before flushing away.
Despite being an exhausting process, collecting patients’ waste played a vital role in testing how the vaccine works because measurements from stools, urine and blood helped researchers determine what kind of immune response the vaccine produced, Chen said.
Scientists analyzed the anti-Shigella IgA antibodies in the various excrements, logging the exact amount and type of cytokines that are in the patients’ stools.
“It is a way for us to be able to learn about the mechanisms of protection,” Chen continued.
When in intense isolation, Eberts used his time efficiently. Between fighting the bacteria and recovering, he raised more than $24,000 for the Water Project, which provides clean, safe water to communities around the world.
“Having had this absolutely awful disease — and recovered fairly quickly, thanks to access to medical care — I really, really would like to use my 15 minutes of Twitter fame to help prevent it elsewhere,” he wrote in the fund-raiser description.
He documented his experience on Twitter, beginning the day before the trial. “Tomorrow I am going to be deliberately infected with dysentery and kept in a quarantine facility for 11 days as part of a Phase IIc vaccine clinical trial,” he wrote. “That sounds dark but I assure you I am extremely excited to overshare this journey with everyone.”
Following Eberts’ barrage of live tweets, Chen said the center had “20- or 30-some people that signed up with interest.”
“I’ve been spending my career trying to tackle this, and it’s always a challenge to try to find willing volunteers,” Chen said. “He was just sharing from the heart, and I think people liked it.”
When asked, “Why the hell would you do this?,” Eberts wrote on Twitter, “3 reasons: 1, to help the less fortunate and advance modern medicine (read: to be smarmy and self-righteous); 2, I get paid enough money to basically cover rent for the rest of the year; 3, I get paid even if I don’t get dysentery.”
While Eberts can’t participate in another Shigella trial due to already being exposed to the bacteria, he’s willing to try a similar vaccine “challenge.”
“Some people go to soup kitchens to get their charity fix. This might be the way I do it,” he said.