Opensourcing Pharma Research in Space Can Mitigate Biosecurity Risks

What's the risk of shielding the biosafety protocols and treatments from the public eye? Potentially risky pharmaceutical research and development with viruses, bacteria, and microcosmic organisms could go wrong rather quickly.

“Biosecurity risks” by Monica Hernandez. May 2020

The United States Federal Aviation Administration and Air Force denied reentry to Varda Space's autonomous space capsule this month. Headquartered in California, Varda is an in-space manufacturing startup focusing on goods and services, including pharmaceutical components. Varda is exceptionally well funded —— the latest reported fundraising series was for $25 million for a total raising of $150 million since its founding in 2020. The Air Force also awarded Varda a $60 million Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) contract for a mix of government and private funds to test hardware at hypersonic speeds (more than five times the speed of sound).

Varda is a new space player composed of former SpaceX and Founders Fund employees. However, Varda joins many big names in the pharmaceutical industry, which have also already set out to explore this line of drug research and development in space.

Varda’s first experiment was launched in June 2023 to produce crystals of ritonavir, an antiretroviral medication for HIV/AIDS. Experimental research in the International Space Station has previously documented that protein crystal growth is easier in microgravity. Microgravity immobilizes the crystal and delays growth, improving purity for active pharmaceutical ingredients. This process is codified as “preparative crystallography.” Varda’s crystallization process lasted 27 hours.