The U.K. has given researchers permission to infect human subjects with COVID-19 sometime in February or March 2021. The study involving people getting coronavirus on purpose aims to determine the effectiveness of various COVID-19 vaccines.
According to the Washington Post, the study will involve 90 adults from ages 18-30 who will be exposed to COVID-19 “in a safe and controlled environment” to determine the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection. Then, in subsequent stages, which are yet to be approved, researchers will seek to assess vaccines and conduct head-to-head comparisons with volunteers.
The article points out the obvious: “Infecting healthy people with a potentially deadly virus—even in small doses and controlled settings—is controversial.” And given that 15 million people in the U.K. have already received a vaccination, some are questioning whether a study where people are getting coronavirus on purpose is needed.
But Clive Dix, who heads up Britain’s vaccine task force, argued for the study. “We have secured a number of safe and effective vaccines for the U.K.,” he noted, “but it is essential that we continue to develop new vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. We expect these studies to offer unique insights into how the virus works and help us understand which promising vaccines offer the best chance of preventing the infection.”
The New York Times added, in its report on the study, that “by controlling the amount of the virus people are subjected to and monitoring them from the moment they are infected, scientists hope to discover things about how the immune system responds to the coronavirus that would be impossible outside a lab—and to develop ways of directly comparing the efficacy of treatments and vaccines.”
“We are going to learn an awful lot about the immunology of the virus,” said Peter Openshaw, an Imperial College London professor involved in the study. He added that the study could “accelerate not only understanding of diseases caused by infection, but also to accelerate the discovery of new treatments and of vaccines.”
U.S. News and World Report added that researchers will initially expose the volunteers to the version of the virus circulating in the U.K. since March 2020. That’s considered a lower risk for young, healthy adults.
The Post noted that the study’s volunteers—those who will be getting coronavirus on purpose—will be compensated, each receiving about £4,500 (slightly more than $6,000) for a study which will involve 17 days of quarantining at a north London hospital with follow-up visits over the course of 12 months.
The study still raises ethical questions, though, despite the comparatively low risk the researchers maintain the volunteers face.
As the New York Times article pointed out, “In the past, scientists have deliberately exposed volunteers to diseases like typhoid and cholera to test vaccines. But infected people could be cured of those diseases; COVID-19 has no known cure, putting the scientists in charge of the British study in largely uncharted ethical territory.”
It added that even some people fitting the study’s profile have experienced severe effects from COVID-19 and that long-term effects from coronavirus still aren’t known. There are also questions about whether the findings of this study will translate to older people or to those with pre-existing conditions.
Andrew Catchpole—chief scientific officer for hVIVO, a clinical research organization that is recruiting volunteers—told the Washington Post that while “thousands” have offered to participate, the study is specifically seeking recruits who have not yet been exposed to the virus and who can pass health screening tests.
Jacob Hopkins, a 23-year-old study hopeful, was quoted in that article saying, “I’m not ignorant to the real risks, but I’ve gone through rigorous pre-screening, and the risks are very, very minor for someone who is young, fit, and healthy.”
He added that even concerns about long-term effects aren’t swaying him, asserting, “I want to help bring an end to this as soon as possible.”