Coronavirus

Biohackers Are on a Secret Hunt for the Coronavirus Vaccine

DIY biologists propose creating a public domain SARS-CoV-2 vaccine with $25,000 in funding.

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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 coronope@protonmail.com, 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.

NEXT: Force Mineure and Contracts That Aren't Performed Because of Epidemics

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  1. 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).

    Sorry, I’m not donating money to a group of anonymous “biohackers”.

  2. Some Biohacker:

    Hey, do we think this disease is really virulent enough? Is there some way to make this disease more deadly? You know, to cleanse Earth of the human disease?

    – Just as likely as a cure from a bunch of garage ‘scientists’.

    1. Here’s hoping your pessimism is not contagious.

      1. I don’t think it’s pessimism to laugh at the notion that a bunch of garage-scientists are going to do much more than accidentally infect themselves? I don’t think so.

        Hey, speaking of, where are these ‘scientists’ going to get samples of the disease? Hmm…I can see why they don’t want the FDA to know who they are.

        1. Who says they need samples of the “disease”, assuming you mean the virus? The gene sequence has been published, I believe.

          1. While I admit to some ignorance on the subject, I would assume one would need a sample to test a vaccine.

          2. It’s not the virus that scares me, it’s a guy with piercings all over his face handing me a syringe out of the back of a white panel van and saying, “inject this dude, trust me, it’ll make you totes safe, broheim”.

            1. Yeah, pretty much this. It’s like no one remembers snake oil full of heroin. The libertarian problem with that, apparently, is that it wasn’t properly labeled heroin. Remind me again, who enforces labeling requirements?

              This is really just me thinking aloud, I’m not really going down that rabbit hole. It’s just funny on some level.

              1. People who harm others are held accountable in a libertarian world, such as those that sell you a product that harms you instead of what is promised.

                Of course if you sign a release agreeing to possible side effects, you’re responsible.

                1. Because that definitely worked in the past when it was the status quo, after all. Those laws came out of nowhere, I tell you!

                2. People who harm others are held accountable in a libertarian world

                  By whom, specifically?

                  1. The police. Many libertarians still believe a minimal government has it’s purpose. Not hard to understand when you realize a corporation is nothing but a totalitarian government and the current government is a really big corporation in which we are all stakeholders. Even ancaps would answer police would do it… willingly paid for by local people and businesses.

        2. So you clearly stopped reading around the 5th paragraph, as the 6th explains how they will be working without needing a sample of the virus itself (their method also precludes being able to infect themselves, since they won’t be using an actual virus)

          1. Yup, a fair point. That said, it does seem they’ll be dealing with samples.


            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.

            I mean, I’m assuming those blood samples are infected blood samples they have in their possession but I could be misreading this and they plan to send off the vaccine to someone else for that portion. I’d be fucking astonished if any lab was willing to absorb that liability, though. I have read that apparently it isn’t transmitted through transfusion, so if that’s true I’d guess there’s little chance they’d infect themselves.

            I can, though, definitely see why they’d be afraid of the FDA. This is actually one of the specific reasons the FDA exists in the first place.

            1. You are indeed misreading it. They’ll just be looking for generation of neutralizing antibody in recipients. That can be done by clinical or experimental serology labs.

        3. They’re not going to produce infectious particles.

        4. You need to go read up on the science, a lot, to know what the article is about.

    2. It’s pretty hard to make a disease more deadly deliberately. It’s pretty easy developing a vaccine for a flu-like virus.

  3. 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 won’t have anyone to sell to because everyone will be dead.

  4. Reason has verified his identity

    Dr. Frohnkenstein?

  5. 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.”

    Tonight on CNN: Biohackers hold world hostage for $25K. Did they create COVID-19?

    1. It’s got a Dr. Evil vibe to it.

      1. Well, it is CNN.

    2. Well, if they beat big pharma to a vaccine, and then sell it for a hell of a lot of money – isn’t that pretty much what big pharma was going to do? In a way we are all hostages when it comes to the latest hot medicine – is anyone not going to pay the $2,000 for the better anticoagulant (debated of course) while they are having a heart attack, if they think it is the best medicine? But the old stuff is only $400, it will probably work, right? No, they are going to pay whatever it takes. Exactly the same pressure to get the vaccine – but even though bigPharma can not actually deny anyone the vaccine, not without being lynched or blown up, they CAN get many many billions of dollars if they do it right. No, I do not think any of it was cooked up in a lab by who knows who, for any of the qui bono theories, but you can bet by a lot of people close to the relevant industries are thinking very hard on how to profit, and potentially profit HUGE.

  6. I doubt these guys will come from behind to create the first cure or vaccine, but considering how sclerotic industry and the FDA are, they’ve got a chance. The FDA has created a pharma culture scared to death of taking chances or doing anything outside the approved ancient ways. For pete’s sake, they don’t even allow terminally ill patients to take experimental drugs! The future lies not with them.

    1. Even if they create it, it’ll be the distribution that’ll be the problem.

      1. Not if Vinny and Paulie get involved and invest.

      2. Not really. While they might not intend to sell it themselves, they’re open sourcing it, so I’d be surprised if someone doesn’t realize there’s a pretty good profit opportunity here if the major players are still dragging their feet on an official vaccine.

  7. I’ll give the $25,000 but I want 45% equity and a $10.00 royalty on any zombies created

    1. Are you Mr. Wonderful, from Shark Tank?

      1. it seemed like a pitch. i haven’t heard from the Biohacker Collective yet.

  8. Funny. I guess I’m always the contrarian. Cuz I think this is an EXCELLENT idea.

    The Pirate Party approach. Crowdsource. Open Source. Transparent. Accountable. And screw the whole intellectual property proprietariness.

    The entire pharma industry started like this – penicillin. With a challenge by the govt to everyone to figure out how to ramp up production – while giving away the Ames Labs test fermentation method. Within 10 years, virtually all antibiotics now came into existence and ramped up into production. Saved more lives than everything since.

    1. Amazing — you said something I entirely agree with. What have you done with the real JFree? :-O

    2. in a vacuum sure.

  9. No serious person in this context “needs” $10,000 to $25,000.

    Malcontents with delusions of adequacy, maybe. Disaffected losers, probably. Deplorable scammers, likely. Habitual contrarians unworthy of respect, sure. But anyone genuinely positioned to help? Not a chance worth considering.

    1. But enough about you.

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  13. ONLY $250,000!!!!!! Must not be government.

    1. Oh Geez; not even that much $25,000……. If it was the Obamacare Network it would be Billions!!! Literally!!

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