Coronavirus trials: Is it a good idea for the UK to infect people on purpose?
It’s been over a year since the first known human case of coronavirus was found, and we still have a lot to learn about the disease. While vaccines for coronavirus are being distributed around the world, the UK is looking to study the coronavirus in a unique way.
The UK government is running a human challenge study, where healthy volunteers will be purposefully infected with the coronavirus. Said study is looking to see how much of the virus it takes to properly infect someone, as well as how truly effective the vaccine is against the virus.
Considering we’re trying to stop coronavirus infections, it may sound counterproductive to purposely infect people with COVID-19. To understand why this study is occurring, you have to understand what exactly a human challenge study is for.
Human lab rats
Since the beginning of time, scientists have been using humans to test scientific discoveries. Some poor soul had to volunteer themselves to figure out fire was hot and could hurt you, after all. As time moved on, people decided testing on other humans was inhumane, and turned to animals such as rats and monkeys.
While animal testing can help scientists discover the effects of different medical conditions, it doesn’t exactly translate to how said condition would affect humans. Considering humans & monkeys share 98% of their DNA, there’s still 2% of our bodies that differ from each other.
So, human challenge studies were born. From malaria to AIDS, the Spanish flu to typhoid, medical scientists have used human challenge trials to see how viruses affect humans, and discover treatments & cures for said illnesses.
Why the UK needs to do one
The UK is one of the countries suffering the most from coronavirus. Even with lockdown after lockdown, the number of cases in the country continue to increase, along with the number of deaths. While the vaccine should help to a point, government officials want to know exactly how much the vaccine will help fight coronavirus, and if one version of the vaccine is more effective than the other.
Imperial College London, the UK Vaccine Taskforce, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, and clinical research company hVIVO Plc are all working on the human challenge study. The study is specifically looking for around ninety young adults between the ages of eighteen to thirty to participate.
Keeping the test subjects safe
One of the biggest areas of concern for the public is protecting the research subjects. Coronavirus has been unpredictable, and it seems like anyone and everyone can become deathly ill after infection – even if they’re healthy with no pre-existing conditions. People want to know if someone is to become severely ill during the study, the researchers have enough emergency treatments available.
The biggest step researchers are taking is using a version of coronavirus that has been in the UK since March of 2020. At least for this study, researchers aren’t looking at the UK variant of coronavirus, but the original virus. Obviously, they can’t guarantee no risk, but researchers say this version of the virus has a “low risk” of death in healthy young adults.
Criteria to qualify for the study is also intense, to weed out anyone who could be greatly affected by the virus. This means no underlying health conditions, no high-risk participants, and no past diagnosis of COVID-19. Lastly, scientists will be monitoring subjects 24/7 and will treat anyone who’s infected with the antiviral Remdesivir.
Is the goal worth it?
At the end of the day, the goal of this human challenge study is to see how much of the virus it takes to infect someone, as well as the best treatment to prevent re-infection. This research, in theory, would greatly help the entire world in their fight to stop the spread of coronavirus.
But even WHO has warned against the effects of human challenge studies in relation to coronavirus. In a 2020 report, WHO warned people may misinterpret the information from a human challenge study, and could end up making the fear of a coronavirus vaccine increase. If any of the subjects become severely ill or passes away, then the trial will be more harmful than helpful in the sphere of public opinion.
According to one of the creators of the rubella vaccine, Dr. Stanley Plotkin, as long as the volunteers are not pressured or coerced into participating, and are made aware of all of the risks, there’s nothing wrong with proceeding forward.
The study was announced by the UK government on February 17, with plans to start infecting participants with coronavirus in the coming weeks. We’ll have to wait and see if the study is able to achieve its goal or not.