LONDON – British volunteers are deliberately infected with Covid-19 in an experimental study that could alter scientists’ understanding of the virus.
The world’s first so-called “challenge studies” with coronaviruses are taking place in London, in which volunteers are injected with a potential vaccine before they are given a nasal spray dose of the potentially deadly pathogen.
There was a lot of controversy in the scientific community prior to the announcement of Open Orphan plc on Tuesday.
Proponents say challenge attempts can be much faster than regular vaccine tests, potentially reducing the waiting time for the world to have access to an effective vaccine.
However, critics argue that too little is known about Covid-19 to make challenge attempts safe. While young people rarely die from the disease, there is increasing evidence that they can have long-term debilitating diseases.
Sue Tansey, a pharmaceutical doctor who is a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent British watchdog, said there was still “disagreement” among experts as to whether it was appropriate to conduct challenge tests. “People are divided because it’s an ethical puzzle,” she said.
“The funding announced today for these groundbreaking but carefully controlled studies is an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines that will ultimately help us return to normal lives.” UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma said in a statement from Open Orphan.
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There are more than 150 vaccines in development around the world, a handful of which have reached Phase 3 tests, in which large numbers of people – up to tens of thousands – are given the vaccine while others are given a placebo.
In ordinary studies, volunteers are sent out into the world and regularly tested for Covid-19 in the hopes that there will be a noticeable difference between the vaccinated and non-vaccinated groups. However, this can take a long time – it will take many participants months to become infected, if they do so at all.
A challenge attempt could shorten that amount of time: all volunteers will receive the vaccine, and all will also receive the virus. Researchers say a group of just 40 volunteers would likely tell them a huge amount about each vaccine candidate in a short amount of time. Everyone accepts that there are risks.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, said in July that two things must happen for challenge attempts to be considered safe. Scientists must know the correct dose to give and discover antiviral drugs that can “save” seriously ill patients.
When asked for the answers to these questions, he said, “We don’t know yet.”
Although young people between the ages of 18 and 30, who usually volunteer for medical studies, rarely die of coronavirus, there is increasing data and isolated evidence of young, healthy people affected by long-term debilitating conditions that affect the heart, brain and lungs , were destroyed.
“The argument against it is that we don’t know enough about the cases where some younger people have these long-term problems later,” Tansey said. “The other downside is that while we have some treatments that seem to improve outcomes in very sick patients, it’s not called ‘rescue therapy’ like an antibiotic that could treat and clear an infection.”
For some volunteers, these concerns are real, but worth the ultimate goal.
“It’s a scary thought,” said Alastair Fraser-Urquhart, 18, who volunteers as part of the 1Day Sooner campaign group that promotes challenge attempts.
“It’s easy for me to sit here now and say I think this is a great idea,” he told NBC News. “But if I landed on a ventilator, I’d still think the same thing because it brings so much humanity, so much good, that nothing I do is in vain.”