How to Make a COVID-19 Vaccine @Home

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This is a script of the video embedded below.

Hello Internet, I’m Jackie Fox and I have a new idea I want to bring you in the final hours of a dark year.  This may be a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.  It combines video games, community, scientific research, and even vaccines and medical treatments.  In some ways it’s a follow up to cover new info about vaccines in general I learned since the last series, but the core concept is about this project called Folding@Home.

See, back in 2007, I bought a PlayStation 3, and after a few updates, there was a mysterious app added called “Folding@Home” and I assumed it had something to do with the virtual lobby app PS3 called “Home.”  

But actually Folding@Home, which started in 2000, is a distributed computing project that today has more collective computing power than the world’s seven fastest supercomputers combined, and a lot of what it does is simulate folding proteins. 

Traditional vaccines are made of man-made proteins from the virus to train our body’s immune system to detect it as a threat before it’s forced to learn the hard way.  But we underestimate how much of the process to manufacture a vaccine is just learning how to fold a protein.

That alone can take anywhere from somewhere around a year to nearly a decade all by itself.  Then scientists and engineers have to figure out how to make a nanoparticle actually fold like that.  This process can also take up to a decade, and a lot of the time in this process involves rigorous safety testing.  Since each protein folding process can be so different, so unique, it all has to be thoroughly safety tested each time.  This is the majority of the safety testing a traditional vaccine gets in a decades’ long process.

Vaccines made with CRISPR like the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna as well as the DNA vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson and Astra-Zeneca skip both of those steps and use a genetic engineering approach that is highly regular.  This means as long as no new process has to be made to get the intended results, there’s nothing to test for safety because this is a very commonly used process as opposed to a unique one like in a traditional protein vaccine.

I hope this helps you to understand why ideas like “it hasn’t been tested enough, how can it be safe in a year,” are simply ignorant of the realities of how vaccine manufacturing works. Even with a tool like Folding@Home it still often takes years to figure out how to fold a protein followed by even more years trying to figure out how to make it in a lab. These four vaccines bypass this by simply giving your cells the info to make the protein perfectly itself.  At that point, the process that can take us decades to perfect happens in the cell nearly instantaneously.  This alone can remove almost all of the time it takes to make a vaccine.  Human safety testing is the last step and it tends to take less than a year if things go well.  It’s unfortunately hard to cut any more time from this process safely, because most of the time here is just waiting to see how study participants react to it over time.

In the cases of the MRNA vaccines, they tried to rush this as much as possible by testing very large groups of people to create massive datasets that would get them statistically relevant answers as quickly as possible, but, it’s been months since they progressed out of those trials, and there’ve been few complications, long term or short, though it does seem that based on the limited US data ~1/50,000 may have an allergic reaction that causes anaphylaxis possibly because of the inclusion of polyethylene glycol in the protective layer around the mRNA called the lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), that help carry it to human cells but also act as an adjuvant, a vaccine ingredient that bolsters the immune response. The LNPs are “PEGylated”—chemically attached to PEG molecules that cover the outside of the particles and increase their stability and life span.

PEGs are also used in everyday products such as toothpaste and shampoo as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture carriers, and they’ve been used as a laxative for decades. An increasing number of biopharmaceuticals include PEGylated compounds as well. I could be wrong here, but if it’s simply an issue with a single ingredient in the LNP that seems like it could be fixed in future versions rather easily.  Though it may also become a moot point.

It’s also probably worth noting the reason we use adjuvants is to increase the immune reaction so that the body recognizes the proteins we’re injecting it with as a threat.  So, to a certain degree, all of the symptoms (up to something as severe as anaphylaxis) of a vaccine, like fever and pain at the injection site are normal, expected, and even desired.  These are signs that your body is taking the threat seriously and that it will more likely take future encounters with the pathogen seriously as well.  After all, it’s better to be a controlled amount of sick now than an uncontrolled amount of sick later.  

Though, this does create a potential downside, and I stress, this is theoretical – there is not yet data to suggest this, but it’s possible that for people with these more severe reactions may become more allergic to PEG containing products.  On the other hand, another theoretical downside to this scenario is that it may be that we can no longer use PEG in the LNP of a future RNA vaccine because it would likely be caught by the immune system before it could create proteins in your cells to give you immunity.

There’s a similar problem to that latter one in the DNA based approach Johnson & Johnson as well as Astra-Zeneca too.  They’re both using a genetically gutted adenovirus as its mRNA carrier and this too could be flagged by the immune system in such a way that future vaccines made on this platform won’t be as effective for the same reasons.

Even now, it’s important to note that the case fatality rate of COVID-19 is just above 2% worldwide right now, having been as high as about 7% earlier in the pandemic.  That means right now you are 100,000% more likely to die of COVID than you are to have a serious allergic reaction to the COVID vaccines.  It is also important to note that so far out of 8 reported cases of serious allergic reactions there have been no deaths, and now that it’s a known side effect, it’s one we can more easily look out for and more quickly treat.  Another risk to weigh with the virus is that having long term health effects with COVID-19 is even more likely than dying of it, and probably higher than we imagine because of how strange some of the long term side effects can be, such as lung damage, loss of stamina, blood clots, hair loss, weakened immune systems, and even erectile dysfunction.

So yeah, choose wisely when an opportunity becomes available to you to get vaccinated in 2021 when the vaccine becomes much more publicly available.

For more of your vaccine questions answered, watch this:

The cool thing about Folding@Home is even though we may no longer need it to make vaccines, we can shift research and massive simulation power into other projects to design drugs to target cancer and HIV (both of which it’s working on now).  Folding@Home is an online citizen science distributed computing project. In these projects non-specialists contribute computer processing power or help to analyze data produced by professional scientists.

And it’s something anyone can participate in if they have a computer, and at least at one time, even a modern gaming console.  This creates an altruistic and anarchic system of computers and engineers working together to solve the hardest problems in science. 

Folding@Home attracts participants who are computer hardware enthusiasts. These groups bring considerable expertise to the project and are able to build computers with advanced processing power. Other distributed computing projects attract these types of participants and projects are often used to benchmark the performance of modified computers, and this aspect of the hobby is accommodated through the competitive nature of the project. Individuals and teams can compete to see who can process the most computer processing units (CPUs).

This latest research on Folding@Home involving interviews and observation of online groups showed that teams of hardware enthusiasts can sometimes work together, sharing best practices with regard to maximizing processing output. Such teams can become communities of practice, with a shared language and online culture. In effect, by working together from around the world, they are constantly teaching each other to be better.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this pattern of participation has been observed in other distributed computing projects.

The power of this broad cooperation was first really recognized on September 16, 2007, when, due in large part to the participation of PlayStation 3 consoles, the Folding@home project officially attained a sustained performance level higher than one petaFLOPS (a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand trillion/a quadrillion/1015 floating-point operations per second), becoming the first computing system of any kind to do so. For comparison, the fastest single supercomputer at the time was BlueGene/L, at 0.280 petaFLOPS. The following year, on February 18, 2009, Folding@home reached five petaFLOPS, and was again the first computing project to do so. Meanwhile, November 2008’s fastest supercomputer had only narrowly passed the benchmark Folding@Home had set over a year before.  This has only increased steadily since.

One of the bright sides to our collective hell year was the increased awareness and participation in the project from interest regarding the coronavirus pandemic and by March 25 of this year it reached 1.5 x86 exaFLOPS (one thousand petaFLOPS), making it the first exaFLOP computing system just like how Playstation 3 had pushed it to become the first petaFLOP computing system.  Just this August they posted a video to their YouTube page boasting a total of 2.8 exaFLOPS.

Thanks to the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) there are at least three more notable projects like this each with their own goals within science; Einstein@Home studies neutron stars, MilkyWay@Home aims to generate accurate three-dimensional dynamic models of stellar streams in the immediate vicinity of the Milky Way, and SETI@Home combs the skies and airwaves for any sign of alien life.  To give you an idea of scale though, as of 2018, the entire BOINC system could only sustain around 20 petaFLOPS.

Another big bright side is you, watching this video because now you know you can share your computer’s power with the behemoth of a collectivized system to make medical or astrological advances happen that much faster.  It’s like bit mining, only instead of making cryptocurrencies, you help create scientific advances for the greater good of human health.

CRISPR is advancing research into genetic engineering in a similar way.  It’s a cheap and simple platform that doesn’t even require the sophisticated and expensive labs of scientific tools of even half its power.  Genetic engineering is still happening in traditional labs around the world, but increasingly among educated biohackers working out of labs in their garages much like the computer engineers that started to take off in the 70-90’s.

It’s getting to the point where a breakthrough in the next vaccine or gene therapy might come from work done in a neighbors garage after they get off work.  But until then, you don’t need a background in genetics to give a little bit of your computing power to Folding@Home, so that a part of the next medical advance might happen in part at your house, at the same time as it happens in thousands and thousands of other houses around the world.

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