Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin has made what may be the biggest donation yet to alleviate India’s COVID-19 crisis, eclipsing even aid from foreign governments.
He said on Wednesday that he had transferred over 50 trillion Shiba Inu coins and other so-called cryptocurrency meme tokens, worth an estimated $1.2 billion, to the India Covid Crypto Relief Fund.
The potential windfall in donations comes as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across India, which has had daily averages during the past week of over 380,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 4,000 deaths. Hospitals across the country continue to be overwhelmed, and critical, lifesaving supplies like oxygen and remdesivir remain in short supply.
The India Covid Crypto Relief Fund is a grass-roots organization that previously donated $1.4 million worth of COVID-19 relief supplies between April 24 and May 13. Now the group will be tasked with figuring out how to translate Buterin’s coin donation into on-the-ground relief after it sells the crypto hoard. The organization’s mission is to provide “health care and essentials to those fighting for survival against COVID-19,” according to its website, and says it is working with “several credible organizations and initiatives to ensure impactful disbursement.”
Critics have long dismissed meme coins—cryptocurrencies that have reached sky-high valuations partially owing to jokes on platforms like Reddit and TikTok—as having no underlying value and few, if any, potential uses, unlike, say, Ethereum. Ethereum is the most widely used blockchain, a decentralized software that publicly tracks transactions, and has been deployed for a number of applications including verifying contracts, making payments, and managing supply chains.
Questions linger about how much of Buterin’s donation can be converted into lifesaving COVID-19 supplies like oxygen and how soon the funds will be deployed. But Buterin’s giveaway demonstrates that the meme coins could have at least one potential use: delivering aid to one of the world’s largest public health crises.
Vulnerability and the crash
Buterin’s massive holdings in the meme coin markets has long been a feature—and not a bug—of the ecosystem.
Last August, when founder Ryoshi, an Internet alias, created the Shiba Inu coin, Ryoshi said he gave 50% of all Shiba coins to Buterin.
“There is no greatness without vulnerability,” Ryoshi said in a “woofpaper,” a jokey take on white paper, about the decision. Ryoshi explained that as long as Buterin doesn’t “rug us,” or sell his tokens, “Shiba will grow and survive.”
Buterin’s donation, which amounts to a full 10% of Shiba Inu coins available, rocked the market. After Buterin’s donation, the price of the coin, which trades as SHIB, crashed 33%, according to CoinMarketCap.com, wiping out nearly $4 billion of the coin’s market cap to bring it to $7.6 billion. The value of other coins Buterin donated also dropped. The Akita Inu coin plunged 44%, while Dogelon Mars sank 57%.
Buterin also donated 500 ETH, the cryptocurrency on the Ethereum network, to the fund, which is worth some $1.8 million. ETH’s price has dropped 10% in the past 24 hours.
On Reddit forums and other social media platforms, some holders of SHIB and the other coins that dropped in value lashed out at Buterin for his decision to donate his tokens. Others praised him for using the tokens for a good cause.
Sandeep Nailwal, the organizer of the India Covid Crypto Relief Fund, urged caution among SHIB holders, saying that there was no need to panic about the value of the tokens.
“We will act responsibly!” he tweeted. “Plz don’t worry $SHIB holders.”
The Shiba Inu coin’s Twitter account, meanwhile, said that it supported Buterin’s decision. “Buterin just brought invaluable legitimacy to the Shiba token by proving it’s not just another meme coin,” it wrote. “Our hard work will contribute to saving millions of lives.”
Analysts believe that the Buterin’s donation may only make the SHIB market more volatile.
“The price of SHIB will likely fluctuate heavily in the coming days—as the market digests the news and observes what the COVID relief fund does with the tokens,” notes Kris Marszalek, CEO of Crypto.com, a cryptocurrency exchange based in Hong Kong.
Donating the money
The value of Buterin’s gift will now depend on where the prices of the coins he donated go from here.
The 50 trillion SHIB and 500 ETH that he donated is worth over $1 billion combined at the time of this writing. However, the “real dollar amount is likely much lower” when the coins are liquidated, says Marszalek.
The SHIB coin has thin liquidity—insufficient to absorb 50 trillion tokens— so the fund should divest slowly and prudently to not cause a market panic, he adds.
In a statement to Fortune, the India Covid Crypto Relief Fund said that it's difficult to know how much Buterin's donation will be worth once it's translated into U.S. dollars or Indian Rupees.
"What I can say is we have the best professionals working to maximize our position. [The donation] should be a sizeable chunk [of $1.2 billion] given their expertise," a spokesperson for the fund said.
The organizers of the fund also say they are working on balancing the interests of SHIB investors with how to best donate the money.
“We’re working on finding ways on how we can utilize the funds without harming retail investors of $SHIB,” Punit Agarwal, a member of the Covid Crypto Relief Fund, tweeted on Thursday.
As of the publishing of this article, the Covid Crypto Relief Fund says that it has previously converted over $1.2 million from crypto tokens into COVID-19 relief donations. Its website cites cash donations to the United Way of Bengaluru for oxygen concentrators and to Refrigeration and Oxygen Co. for oxygen cylinders.
The website also says its crypto holdings are worth over $1 billion.
Ketan Surana, director at Coinsbit India, an Indian cryptocurrency exchange, says that there are multiple ways the fund can use the donation.
“[Nailwal] can either sell in parts or in full” via overseas exchanges like Binance or on Indian exchanges, he says. He notes that Nailwal could also transfer tokens to people who are willing to provide COVID-19 relief supplies in exchange for cryptocurrencies. “After all, people all over the world want to have positions in crypto.”
The India Covid Crypto Relief fund says that in order to scale up operations after Buterin's donation it plans to "work more closely" with India's government. Aligning the fund's goals with the Indian government's will help the fund better solve problems at scale, the spokesperson added.
"We plan to deploy 100% of the funds to Covid Relief activities in the most transparent and accountable manner," the spokesperson said.
Ultimately, Buterin’s donation is providing hope that the much-maligned meme coins may be able to provide a real-world value in a place in desperate need of help.
“What [Buterin] did is great—[a] perfect move,” says Ben Caselin, head of research and strategy at cryptocurrency exchange AAX. “He was expected not to sell because he doesn’t need the money. But charity trumps that…It brings the conversation straight to value and real-world benefit.”
The story has been updated with a statement from the India Covid Crypto Relief Fund.
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