I always assumed, without investigating, that vaccine-making was the sort of thing which required highly specialized experts and equipment. But I've been hearing that the Moderna vaccine was designed in two days, which strongly suggests that it's simple. So I'm at least asking the question: how hard would it be to make such a vaccine?
The main question is what's involved in designing and synthesizing a vaccine. Subquestions:
- What information is needed for design, and is any non-public?
- What skills are needed for design (other than general bio/bioinformatics know-how), and how does one design a vaccine?
- What equipment and supplies are needed for synthesis?
- Does the equipment require any unusual skills (other than typical wetlab stuff, e.g. how to use a pipette or prevent contamination)?
- Perhaps most important for a non-professional effort: what quality assurance steps are typically used? How can one verify that the thing one intended to produce was actually produced?
These are the main things I'd like to know about.
There's also a cluster of secondary questions around exactly what one could do with such a vaccine, beyond using it oneself. Presumably the FDA would shut down any effort to sell it to others as a vaccine, but which part of that is the problematic part? If someone gives away a homebrew vaccine for free, is that ok? If it's advertised as not-a-vaccine (but with a technical explanation of exactly what it is), or even as "not for human use" (since of course humans never use things not fit for human use), is that ok? To what extent can barriers be circumvented by loading all the equipment in an RV and taking a weekend trip to Canada/Mexico/whatever the equivalent is for Europe? I'm imagining e.g. a small group in Berkeley decides to put in the effort to learn how to make vaccines, buys $10k of equipment and supplies, then gives away vaccine to most of the Berkeley rationalist hub (with a clear "not approved by FDA, not fit for human consumption" warning accompanied by an implicit wink). Where does the FDA draw the line between "a group of friends doing stuff they shouldn't be doing" vs something which needs to be shut down?
I expect any viable plan would take quite a lot of effort, but there's an awful lot of value to be had here - even just immunizing oneself and a handful of friends could plausibly be valuable enough to justify the effort and expenditure. Also, this seems like the sort of thing where someone could learn the skills and acquire the equipment in advance, as preparation for future pandemics - possibly including diseases much more dangerous than COVID. Given how well this episode has gone, that could provide even more value.