In a bid to speed up the race to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, the U.K. government announced Tuesday morning that it will be launching some controversial vaccine trials known as challenge trials.
In a world first for COVID-19, young healthy volunteers will be vaccinated, then intentionally exposed to the potentially deadly virus in order to test vaccines in a controlled environment. Although some medical experts view them as ethically questionable, the benefit of challenge trials is that they can be completed in a much shorter timeframe than typical late-stage studies.
The experiment will take place in a quarantine ward of a north London hospital. After inhaling a diluted dose of the virus, the trial participants will be closely monitored, thus enabling scientists and doctors to better understand the disease and how a vaccine can fight it.
“Human challenge studies can increase our understanding of COVID-19 in unique ways and accelerate development of the many potential new COVID-19 treatments and vaccines,” explained Dr Chris Chiu, from the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London and lead researcher on the human challenge study.
The 1Day Sooner advocacy group, which has been petitioning the government to allow challenge trials, hailed the announcement. “We are glad the U.K. government is embracing the altruism of the thousands of our British volunteers who want these studies,” the group said.
The advocacy group says these trials “will be key to making multiple safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines available for the whole world, including those in low-income countries bearing the brunt of this pandemic.”
It says it believes these trials will not only accelerate research into vaccines but “will also answer essential questions about COVID-19 immunity that are broadly applicable to the development of treatments and public health policy.”
Alastair Fraser-Urquhart, 18, a spokesperson for 1Day Sooner, explained to ABC News his motivation to volunteer for these trials. Brushing aside the fact that he’s putting himself at risk, he said, “I’m convinced that challenge trials will save thousands of lives and billions of pounds, and if I didn’t do something and I wasn’t advocating challenge trials I would regret it.”
Andrew Catchpole, the chief scientist of hVIVO, the company that will be running the trials in conjunction with the British government, Imperial College University and the Royal Free Hospital, stressed to ABC News that as much risk as possible has been removed from the process.
Only people ages 18 to 30, proven to be healthy, will be taken as volunteers, according to Catchpole, and the dose of the virus that they will be exposed to will be very carefully calibrated.
“So just like any other clinical trial, what you would expect is that any product we put into a human needs to undergo very tight regulations, and this is no exception to that,” Catchpole said.
“So the virus, which we would inoculate them with, has been manufactured to the very high standards, a medical grade version of the virus that undergoes very high regulatory