Four Thieves Vinegar Collective: DIY epipens were just the start, now it's home bioreactors to thwart Big Pharma's price-gouging

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I wish I could help these people somehow; they’re helping to build a future for the common person.

All I can really say is that this is righteous work.


I am reminded of the “tinctures” in Bruce Sterling’s novel Holy Fire (1996) – home chemistry sets that make more or less everything, from hot cocoa to pheromones:

“We overcooked the batch,” Antonio said. “We have to flush and start over.”

“What do you mean, flush?” Brett said tensely.

Antonio gestured at the bathroom door.

Brett sat up in the hammock, sending it swaying sickeningly. “Look, you can’t flush a bad tincture down the commode! Are you crazy? You have to decompose a bad tincture inside the set. Man, they’ve got monitors in the sewer system! You can’t just spew some bad chemical process into a city sewer. It might be toxic or carcinogenic! That makes environmental monitors go crazy!”

“We flushed bad batches before,” Antonio said patiently. “We do it all the time.”

“A bad lacrimogen run?”

“No, entheogens. But no problem.”

“You are an irresponsible sociopath with no consideration for innocent people,” Brett said mordantly, bitterly, and with complete accuracy.

There was a sudden violent burst from the bathroom. A blast of explosive compression. The door flew open and banged the wall hard enough to break a hinge.

Everyone stared in amazement. There were gurglings, then a sudden violent burst. Sewage jetted obliquely from the toilet and splattered the ceiling. Then rusty bolts snapped and the commode itself jumped from its concrete moorings and tumbled into the cellar.

A gleaming machine with a hundred thrashing legs came convulsing from the sewer. It was as narrow as a drainpipe and its thick metal head was a sewage-stained mass of bristles and chemical sensors. It grabbed at the doorframe with thick bristle-footed feet, and its hindquarters gouted spastic jets of white chemical foam.

It arched its plated sinuous back and howled like a banshee.

“Don’t run, don’t run,” Kurt shouted, “they punish you more if you run,” but of course everyone ran. They all leapt to their feet and scrambled up the stairs and out the door like a pack of panicked baboons.

Maya ran as well, dashing out into the damp and chilly Roman street. Then she turned and ran back into the squat.

She snatched up her backpack. The sewer guardian was sitting half-buried in an enormous wad of foaming sealant. It turned at her, aimed camera eyes at her, lifted two flanges on its neck, and began flashing red alarm lights. It then said something very ominous in Italiano. Maya turned and fled.


PS, I agree with @Blaze_Curry – the Four Thieves Collective is doing righteous work.


cabotegravir (an experimental drug that prevents the spread of HIV from needle-sharing, which the collective makes available to heroin dealers to cut their products with).

I totally get the reasoning for this, but at the same time makes me really uncomfortable because they’re having a direct channel with dealers for hard drugs and their business. If they were giving the compound to the users i’d feel about it differently. I dunno


When helping people is a crime because powerful companies have convinced our government that their profits are more important than human lives.


Agreed. From a Utilitarian perspective maybe it makes sense, but that’s the kind of thing that turns public opinion against you.

Facebook moms and suburban liberals will 100% support stories like “Biohackers teach families to make their own $30 epipens,” but you lose them at “Biohackers sell HIV drugs to heroin dealers.”

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I always thought the NHS paid over the odds, seeing how big a buyer they are. I thought they ought to try having their own production facility, so they can make hospital beds and stuff like this. Making their own pharma would be good. Can’t see it happening under our present government, but come the glorious day when those idiots are no more, maybe they can do a deal.


Welcome to the wonderful world of harm reduction, where pretty much everything is uncomfortable. In a harm reduction framework you help people not because you support what they’re doing, but because the outcome will be better with your help than without it. Because of this it can be seen as an unprincipled way of engaging with the world, but I see it as metaprincipled (having principles about when to be principled and when not to).

Turns out you can do amazing things when you don’t care what these (imaginary) demographics will think!


B-But people won’t do important work…without…without a profit motive…


Certainly, and if they’re never more than an interesting underground collective that talks to crusty biopunks with magnets in their fingertips, I have no problem with that.

But if you really want to help mainstream families that are suffering under predatory pharmaceutical practices, I suspect that you’re going to need some image control and a media strategy.

I totally am for providing clean needles, injection sites, etc. But giving compounds to the sellers/distributors of illicit hard drugs rather than to the users is something else. But hey if their efforts work in the long run then that’s awesome, seems like a riskier way to go about it though.

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China is a massive country, I’m surprised the same thing hasn’t been done here in the USA.

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I’m more worried about the complete lack of drug-drug interaction studies between cabotegrivir and any iv drug of abuse.


For one thing, heroin users generally don’t want to cut their own drugs, while dealers have a clear incentive.

For another, a user who doesn’t even have it together to use a clean needle is almost definitely not going to make sure to take an additional HIV medicine. They’re probably only interested in getting heroin into a vein. So the only viable route I can think of for delivery of the medicine is getting it into the heroin ahead of time.

It’s true that it robs the user of agency, they don’t get to decide if they want the medicine or not. But given that they’re using heroin cut with anything in the first place, it seems they’ve already agreed to trust their dealer.

Certainly you’re right if you’re planning on spinning your success as an underground collective into a funded startup or a non-profit advocacy organization. But I think the theory behind efforts like this is that there are more potent ways to change the world.

We are taught that capitalism and public opinion determine the shape of our world, but for the vast majority of us, our real power lies outside of both traditional politics and markets. Our power is in doing real things that work for ourselves and those around us, and spreading those practices.


In theory I agree with that, but in practice I think it often devolves into Randian hacker libertarianism.

I’m savvy enough to sidestep these fundamental societal problems, why can’t everyone? What’s the big deal? Learn to code, or die.

Maybe you can acquire power outside of the political process and media and markets. Most people can’t. They need advocacy by people and organizations that can work, if not within The System, then at least near The System in a way that is socially and morally acceptable.

I can get my mother and grandmother to understand how teaching people to build their own epipens could be both safe and morally justifiable. I can’t convince them that helping drug dealers spike heroin with vaccines is either of those things. The latter position will poison them to the former.


The problem with viewing that particular act through a harm reduction lens is that we really don’t know the numbers. How many end users are on something that will have a negative interaction? What does the toxicity curve look like for a heavy user? If you save ten people from HIV but burn out the kidneys of 12, where do we stand?


There’s the problem, right there. Why is ‘profit’ only measured in monetary terms? Profit = benefit and there are many benefits of doing many things, other than monetary benefits. But late-stage capitalism has nearly conditioned us all.


I can’t imagine the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective giving much of a shit about your grandmother’s opinion. They aren’t running for congress. Either they save lives, or kill people, or go to prison, or some combination of these, and none of them depends on popularity.

*Unless your grandmother is a federal judge, in which case I apologize for my flippant comment.


I really need to reread that book.


Active biologicals in my postal system? OH HELL NO!