The main reason CoroHope is going for a gene-based approach to vaccination is because the other two more common ways of making vaccines, either through a living but weakened virus or through a non-reproducing virus that can still generate an immune response once inside a patient’s body, require handling an infectious virus in the lab. This is a risk that is not worth it for DIY biohackers, more so as COVID-19 in particular, requires a Biosafety Level 3 facility.
The biohackers released a crowdsourcing document outlining their plan on March 3rd, a week before the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In the document, CoroHope argued that despite COVID-19 having not reached pandemic level as of March 3rd, the development of an affordable and accessible vaccine was a high priority.
Although the official designation of the virus as a pandemic on March 11 makes CoroHope’s ‘call-to-action’ even more pertinent, it has not increased their sense of urgency, but rather as CoroHope’s spokesperson told us, it shows what WHO’s priorities are:
“The official WHO declaration has not increased our urgency at all. It was little too late on their part, and only reinforces that the WHO values politics over human lives,” says CoroHope’s spokesperson.
Gene-based vaccines involve the injection of modified DNA or RNA information from a virus into a patient. This information is carried through a plasmid, which is a circular DNA molecule found in some bacterial cells alongside the bacteria’s main DNA, but can replicate independent of the bacteria’s main genome.
Through this gene-based plasmid approach, a plasmid with a coronavirus-like protein is introduced into a patient’s body. When cells in the patient’s body take this plasmid, it expresses a coronavirus-like protein, causing the body to generate an immune response and train itself to recognize and fight the actual virus.
Although gene-based vaccines are experimental and none have yet been officially approved by regulatory bodies, they are the fastest to produce. In fact, the world’s first candidate vaccine for COVID-19 was produced this way by Massachusetts-based biotech company Moderna Pharmaceuticals. However, Moderna used synthetic RNA rather than plasmid-based DNA.
Moderna announced it had designed a sequence for the vaccine on January 13, only a few days after the virus had been identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan on January 7!
CoroHope is using the more scale-able, less expensive traditional plasmid-DNA approach similar to the one being used by Inovio Pharmaceuticals to also develop a coronavirus vaccine. The coronavirus-like protein expressed by the vaccine is a modified form of the spike protein (a trans-membrane protein that gives coronaviruses their ‘corona’ shape) from the novel coronavirus.
After coding the sequence of the spike protein which is freely available in bioinformatics databases, CoroHope’s biohackers have sort of, but not really “pirated” what they assess to be the modifications on the spike protein used by Moderna and Inovio, into their plasmid construct. These modifications are being kept as trade secrets by both Moderna and Inovio.
So how far are Moderna and CoroHope in their different but parallel approaches? Moderna has caused controversy and elicited outrage from bioethicists by skipping the animal testing phase of clinical trials and is currently testing the vaccine on human volunteers. The reasons cited by Moderna for doing so are urgency, and the difficulty of testing coronaviruses in mice, as mice seem not to be affected by the viruses. Nevertheless, researchers at Moderna are breeding genetically engineered humanized-mice whose cells are lined with the human molecules through which coronaviruses enter human cells. These humanized-mice are being used for animal testing.
As for CoroHope’s biohackers, the plasmid design they described in their crowdsourcing document, is technically complete. Their spokesperson says it is just a matter of finalizing the sequence to ensure that they get everything right:
“We are still finalizing the sequence, as new research is published daily and we want to make sure we get it right with a limited budget,” says the spokesperson.
CoroHope’s limited budget is the limiting factor in developing the CoroNope vaccine further because at this stage, all that they have is plasmid, and as their spokesperson puts it, “Without a decent cushion of funding to support further development, a plasmid by itself is next to useless.”
To bootstrap based on the budget that will be available to them, CoroHope has divided their vaccine development process into three tiers:
Tier 1: For a basic funding of $10,000 USD, they will design and synthesize an open-access plasmid that can be used by any interested lab.
Tier 2: If CoroHope is able to get more funding in the ballpark of $10,000 USD, they will set up small-scale in-house manufacturing of the plasmid, and ship it to interested labs.
Tier 3: If CoroHope gets more funding beyond Tier 2, they will scale and do quality control testing of the plasmid, increase bioproduction throughput, and therefore manufacture more vaccine efficiently.
Given the amount of funding that CoroHope could potentially receive from the public, their ambitious crowdsourcing brings up one thing: How will they build public trust, given the anonymity of the CoroHope team?
Despite having an experienced molecular biologist who has worked on vaccines for clinical trials by a government agency, CoroHope members are operating under strict anonymity due to the high liability involved when making medications; particularly new and non-approved treatments like gene-based vaccinations.
CoroHope particularly wants to avoid unjust lawsuits from people who could mess up the production of the vaccine, particularly as their spokesperson pointed to us, how the FDA is belligerent towards biohackers:
“Even in a pandemic scenario the FDA does not take kindly to DIY efforts, and they will enforce the law harshly,” they said.
According to CoroHope, their need for anonymity is even more crucial because their project is not like other biohacking endeavors like former NASA scientist Josiah Zayner’s CRISPR self-injection, which CoroHope’s spokesperson considers worthless, stating, “This is far beyond the like of Josiah Zayner‘s worthless stunts, and we are reluctant to risk our livelihoods to promote ourselves publicly.”
With these concerns in mind, CoroHope has issued a lot of disclaimers in their crowdsourcing document, one disclaimer in particular emphasizing that the CoroNope vaccine will at best be something freely available until approved treatments are available:
“This is not a treatment we expect to be adopted by the medical community in any official sense,” CoroHope’s disclaimer states, “Many other companies are developing vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, and those are what healthcare systems will rely on next year and beyond. Our vaccine will be, at best, a stopgap until those clinically-trialed treatments are widely available.”
CoroHope reiterates what their do-it-yourself approach offers: an alternative. This alternative, in a sense, defines what bio-medical biohacking is all about:
“Our approach is outside of academia and the pharma industry, offering an alternative that might otherwise go unexplored.”
CoroHope has promised that whatever they develop from this biohacking project, including sequences and hardware, will be put into the public domain.
Further development of the CoroNope do-it-yourself COVID-19 vaccine can be funded either through CoroHope’s Bitcoin address or by directly contacting CoroHope through firstname.lastname@example.org.