A collective of biohackers has begun circulating a document proposing a plan to create, test, and distribute a vaccine to battle SARS-CoV-2. To get started, they say they need "between $10-25k."
Reason's Zach Weissmueller sat down with the lead biologist on the project, who requested anonymity due to fear of retribution from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Reason has verified his identity, as well as that of his business partner and a Silicon Valley investor who has confirmed his interest in the project.
The anonymous biologist has worked in the commercial biotech sector and has long been involved in the "biohacker" community, a grassroots movement of professional and amateur scientists who experiment with genetic engineering in their homes and community labs. People like Josiah Zayner, founder of The Odin, which distributes kits allowing anyone to experiment with the gene-editing tool CRISPR.
Member of this community have created glowing yeast by inserting jellyfish genes, injected themselves with homemade vaccines, attempted to reverse-engineer patented pharmaceuticals, and tried to genetically engineer dogs—all without seeking FDA approval.
"If someone is trying to develop and distribute an unapproved medicine, [the FDA] will come down hard, and they have," says the anonymous biohacker. "It's a severe risk to our livelihoods outside of this project if we were to be deanonymized."
The standard methods for creating vaccines are to combine a sample of a virus with a less infectious variant, or to inactivate the virus with heat or chemicals and then allow it to propagate immunity throughout the body. This team is attempting to create a vaccine using synthetic DNA constructed in a lab, which could save both money and time, though it might require a special device to deliver an electrical pulse to help the vaccine penetrate cell membranes.
There are no vaccines on the market created this way, but the pharmaceutical company Inovio is pursuing the same approach, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has expressed interest in funding projects that use this method.
"The company that we are, shall we say, cribbing the most off of…they have a phase two clinical trial using the exact same approach for MERS [Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome]," says the biohacker.
The method has successfully produced antibodies to MERS but remains untested on a large population because there has been no outbreak since it was developed. Still, this gives the biohacker and his team enough confidence to proceed.
The proposal says the team will first look for positive responses in blood samples, rely on safety testing results from the company whose techniques they are mirroring, and then begin distributing dried versions of the vaccine to willing volunteers who would self-report results daily in exchange for free access to the vaccine.
He hopes to rely on a network of biohacker "community labs" to help with this process. He acknowledges that most people won't be willing to inject a non-FDA-approved vaccine but believes that if the pandemic gets bad enough they could fill a gap between the time the government approved an official vaccine and the time that vaccine is shown in trials to be relatively safe and able to generate antibodies in the blood. He says that DNA plasmid-based vaccines are less likely to cause injury than virus-based ones.
"Maybe it seems a little crazy, but at a certain point not doing something that seems pretty safe in the face of a disease that could kill you or loved ones….It depends on where everyone's particular risk threshold is," he says. "And I don't blame anyone waiting for an FDA-approved vaccine."
The biohacker places the group's odds of success at "less than 50 percent," but he still believes it's better to try than to do nothing in the face of a pandemic. He also believes the failure of public health agencies such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control to act swiftly and decisively early in the outbreak increases the likelihood that an unapproved vaccine could play a useful role in slowing the spread of the virus.
"The people who are on the ground at these [public health] organizations, they mean well, but governments have to, as they say, 'Make number go up' with the economy, even if that means putting people's lives at risk," he says.
The Coronope document says that after the team successfully constructs a synthesized plasmid, which they believe they could do in 2 to 4 months, they could begin "producing thousands of doses per day." From there, the biohacker says, it's simply "an economy of scale," since replication of a bacterial-based DNA vaccine is far more efficient than a viral one that must be cultivated in slower-replicating animal cells.
Watch the video above for the full interview. The team suggests anyone interested in learning more or contributing contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use their public bitcoin wallet address bc1qccn54y3l4a9un7dhqnuewd22jx5vnruhf0dqve.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Justin Monticello and John Osterhoudt.
Music: "Cendres" and "Fryeri," by Kai Engel.
Photo credits: Coronavirus in Rome, Matteo Trevisan/ZUMA Press/Newscom.