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The do-it-yourself fight against the coronavirus
Posted on 3 April 2020

To cope with a shortage of masks, hydro-alcoholic gel, tests and other tools to fight the Covid-19 epidemic, biohackers are getting organized. Here is a brief review of this unconventional movement that is showing innovation to help in the current crisis.

Hydroalcoholic gels, protective masks, detection tests, artificial respirators: the manufacture of these four objects is usually the prerogative of established institutions and companies. These objects can be found in pharmacies, hospitals, in a standardized and organized world. Covid-19 has changed this order of things and, for the time being, science, medicine and the market are having a hard time containing the virus.

Faced with the shortage of gels, tests and protective masks, there are countless circumventions, diversions and innovations. Let us begin our overview with the story of a certain Mr Tang, who, faced with the shortage of masks in Hong Kong, decided to produce masks on a large scale himself. The initiative is economically challenging: Mr. Tang aims to make "low-cost" by selling his masks at very low cost, at a time when prices are soaring and stories of theft and illegal mask sales are multiplying.

Tutorials to build masks yourself have multiplied since February and are relayed in many media and on social networks. Some tutorials are even put online by professional associations, such as the Italian Telemedicine Association, hospitals (in Hong Kong, Saint-Brieuc, etc.), or firefighters. The techniques and materials used to make these do-it-yourself masks vary enormously, from the use of paper towels and tissues to the use of plastic - even 3D printing - and the use of clothing. As do-it-yourself masks become more widespread, debates about their reliability and effectiveness are increasing.  

Hacker communities have also taken over the coronavirus as a scientific object. While hackers have traditionally tinkered with computer hardware and software, over the past decade or so there have been "biohackers" (also known as do-it-yourself biologists) who tinker with living things. They include a wide range of profiles: natural scientists, hackers and geeks, engineers, students, artists, entrepreneurs. Although their number is difficult to estimate (probably around 4,000 worldwide, and around 100 in France), they often find themselves in community laboratories, of which there are around 50 worldwide.

The biohackers at BioCurious, a laboratory created in 2010 near San Francisco, are following the Covid-19 outbreak closely and organized the Wuhan Virus Co-Learning Hackathon on February 1st. On the menu: understanding how viruses in general work and spread, analysing the genome of the coronavirus, examining how it spreads. The philosophy of this "hackathon", like the activities of biohackers in general, is that of a democratization of science: the goal is to make scientific and technical knowledge accessible to citizens.  

At Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver, a hackathon called EpiCoronaHack took place from February 18 to 19. Participants focused on data analysis, modeling and simulation of publicly available data on the virus. But the idea was not just to understand and replicate what the medical world already knows. More importantly, the idea was to produce analyses yourself, "make your own estimates, models and predictions and see what you find.

From February 27 to 28, the Hack for Wuhan, an online hackathon, brought together hackers from all over the world. The idea for this initiative came from Wuhan2020, a community founded in January 2020 that brings together several thousand volunteers. The goal of Hack for Wuhan is to create a range of new designs, tools, prototypes, models (such as platforms for data collection, or mobile applications for self-diagnosis of coronavirus symptoms). All this - hacking obliges - in an open source way: that is to say in an open, transparent, collaborative and decentralized way.

Since March, hackathons are multiplying around the world, including Hack la Crise (March 20-22, France), Versus Virus (April 3-5, Switzerland), or #BuildforCOVID19 (March 26-30), launched by the World Health Organization in partnership with companies such as Facebook and Microsoft. While hackathons are original devices that can give rise to very diverse and creative ideas and collaborations, they suffer from a chronic problem: 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 by nature. In the past, they have already tackled environmental and health problems more than once. They have developed open source ultrasound probes, portable devices to detect malaria (the Amplino project), an open protocol for producing insulin (the Open Insulin project), biosensors to detect the presence of toxic substances, collaborations with a pharmaceutical company on cancer data (the Epidemium project, led by the Parisian laboratory La Paillasse), and epinephrine auto-injectors.

These projects show that biohackers want to tackle contemporary problems affecting living things head on, but 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 have. But they aim to democratize the coronavirus in their own way, by imagining and sharing tools, software, data and models.

Current discussions within the biohacker community revolve around the production of disinfectants, artificial respirators and tests to diagnose the virus. One example is the OpenCovid19 initiative, which aims to develop and share open source diagnostic methodologies. One idea would be to produce do-it-yourself detection kits capable of testing for the presence of the coronavirus. In the short to medium term, it is difficult to imagine that these tests could be used to test patients directly, but they could be mobilised to test for the presence of the virus in different types of environment. While it remains to be seen whether all these ideas will stand up to biological reality and complexity, a sociological diagnosis can already be made: scarcity has made innovation flourish.

Morgan Meyer

A sociologist, Morgan Meyer is a CNRS research director at the Interdisciplinary Institute of Innovation, Mines ParisTech (PSL) and an associate researcher at the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Innovation Sciences and Society (LISIS) at the University of Paris-Est Marne-La-Vallée.

The original of this article was published on the website of the magazine La Recherche.

To access the original article click here