Scientific questions and crippling logistical challenges surrounding the global response to the fast-moving coronavirus pandemic have led many to help look for solutions, stoking a burgeoning DIY biology movement.
Spurred by the insecurity, students, scientists, developers and health professionals have taken to online biology forums in recent weeks to help investigate potential vaccines and innovative methods of testing.
Many of these online communities have been around for years, but the fast spread of coronavirus has further ignited them, said Josh Perfetto, founder of a Santa Clara, California, biological testing startup and member of DIYbio, an online forum for DIY scientists.
“Biohacking used to be a fringe space, but I think this is becoming a kind of breakout moment for things like DIY biology and community labs and hacker spaces,” he said. “Even if we contain coronavirus, this is starting to become a big need. This won’t be the last pandemic.”
The DIY efforts come as more than 190,000 coronavirus cases have been reported worldwide, numerous countries have issued new regulations in an effort to curb its spread, and more and more cities in the US go on lockdown. Meanwhile, US officials are scrambling to make more test kits available to its population after weeks of undertesting, and a vaccine remains many months away.
Amid the crisis, the international online science coalition Just One Giant Lab (JOGL) announced on 4 March a call to its followers to work together to develop solutions to the myriad challenges posed by the coronavirus. Since then, the group has seen a record number of engagement on its platforms, it says, with 380 members from every continent on the planet except Antarctica working together to develop coronavirus tools.
Members of the group communicate primarily through a public Slack messaging channel and a weekly international video and phone call.
The ultimate goal of the JOGL challenge was initially to develop an open source (publicly shared) methodology to safely test for the virus “using tools as common as possible”. But other projects have also emerged from the forum, including tracking the spread of the virus using open source software and finding more accessible ways to make masks and open source ventilators, the devices that help sick patients breathe, particularly important as the disease comes with severe respiratory effects.
Sophie Liu, a high school student in Washington and a JOGL member, is working on making lab testing for coronavirus more accessible.
Liu got into the online biology movement when, as a 15-year-old in 10th grade she had trouble finding any labs who would hire a teen, and joined the coronavirus project in early March.
The tests she has developed are in early stages, she said.
“This project means a lot to me because the virus is spreading in Washington, and I have been skipping out on a lot of school - I am extremely behind on coursework and exams” she said. “I haven’t been able to hang out with my friends or attend social gatherings.”
Members of JOGL hope to create viable solutions to potentially be distributed to NGOs after being reviewed by JOGL’s biosafety advisory board, composed of international biosecurity and safety experts, said Kat Holo, another Washington high school student involved in the group.
She has been involved the community biology space for more than three years and said the group has never had such a large amount of engagement from such a large volume of scientists.
“We’ve seen such a big response since this pandemic has affected everyone’s lives in one way or another, no matter where they live or who they are,” she said. “There is a common consensus and belief in the power of the community and the common desire to help the international community in such a time of need.”
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