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Biohackers tackle the coronavirus

The World Health Organization, ministries, doctors, the media: it’s hardly surprising that all these actors produce and communicate data on the coronavirus (COVID-19). But that hackers and biohackers take up the subject is far more astonishing.

Biohackers from BioCurious, a community laboratory created in 2010 near San Francisco, are monitoring the epidemic closely and organized the Wuhan Virus Co-Learning Hackathon on February 1. The hackathon’s objectives: understanding how viruses in general work and spread, analyzing the genome of the coronavirus, and examining how the latter propagates. The philosophy of this hackathon, as of the activities of biohackers in general, is that of a democratization of science. The aim, in other words, is to render scientific and technical knowledge more accessible to citizens.

At Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver, a hackathon called EpiCoronaHack took place from February 18 to 19. Participants worked on data analysis, modeling and simulation based on publicly available data on the virus. But the idea was not just to understand and reproduce what the medical world already knows. The idea was to produce one’s own analyzes - “make your own estimates, models, and forecasts and see what you find”.

The largest event to date took place from February 27 to 28. Hack for Wuhan, an online hackathon, brought together hackers from all across the globe. The idea for this initiative was born within Wuhan2020, an open source community founded in January 2020 that brings together several thousand volunteers. The goal of Hack for Wuhan is to create a whole range of new designs, prototypes, business and social innovation models, etc.

If hackathons are innovative devices which can give rise to very diverse and creative ideas and collaborations, they nevertheless suffer from a chronic problem: as research in the social sciences has shown, many applications and projects do not survive beyond the duration of hackathons, due to a lack of resources or motivation, or both.

But biohackers are optimistic in nature. Over the past ten years, they have tackled environmental and health issues more than once. They have developed alternative Geiger counters, open source ultrasound probes, portable devices to detect malaria (the Amplino project), an open insulin production protocol (the Open Insulin project), biosensors to detect the presence of toxic substances, collaborations with companies on cancer data (the Epidemium project), and epinephrine auto-injectors.

All these projects show that biohackers confront contemporary problems affecting people’s health and environment head-on, and that they like to do so in an unconventional way. They will certainly not develop a vaccine against the coronavirus in the near future - this would require technical and financial resources that they do not possess. But they aim to democratize the coronavirus in their own way, by imagining and sharing tools, software, data, and models. Current discussions, for instance, revolve around the possibility and the dangers of developing DIY tests to diagnose the virus and the self-production of protective masks. The proliferation of biohackers’ ideas will now face the biological complexity and geopolitical reality of the coronavirus.

By Morgan Meyer

Morgan Meyer is a sociologist of science and a research director at Mines ParisTech (PSL). His current research focuses on participation and the co-production of knowledge (DIY biology, open source agriculture) and on current debates in biology (synthetic biology, gene editing). He holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Sheffield.