Scientists want to purposely infect volunteers with coronavirus to speed up vaccine research

By Claire Schofield
Thursday, 16th July 2020, 1:25 pm
Updated Thursday, 16th July 2020, 1:27 pm
23 potential vaccines are undergoing clinical trials around the world (Photo: Shutterstock)
23 potential vaccines are undergoing clinical trials around the world (Photo: Shutterstock)

Scientists want volunteers to come forward to help in the search for a vaccine against coronavirus.

Nobel laureates are among those arguing that volunteers should be exposed to the virus after receiving a potential vaccine, in order to help test its level of protection.

‘Challenge trials’

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    The group of scientists has written an open letter to the head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), saying that so-called “challenge trials” could help to accelerate the development of a vaccine.

    There are currently 23 potential coronavirus vaccines undergoing clinical trials around the world, but it is argued that the only way to know if such vaccines are effective is if enough of the volunteers are exposed to the virus in their daily life - and do not get infected.

    Such a test could take until next year to yield results, as many of the studies are taking place in countries where infection rates are falling, making it more difficult for volunteers to be exposed.

    This is why the organisation 1 Day Sooner (which consists of more than 100 prominent figures, including 15 Nobel laureates) is now calling for healthy young volunteers to be deliberately given coronavirus after receiving a potential vaccine.

    It is argued that the risks posed to volunteers’ health would be low, and would be far outweighed by the potential benefits such a trial could offer.

    Accelerating vaccine development

    In the letter, the scientists explain that the rationale behind human “challenge trials” is that they could greatly speed up the development of a vaccine, as they can provide information much faster than conventional trials.

    In such studies, volunteers will still be given the potential vaccine, but instead of waiting to contract the virus in day-to-day life, they are then deliberately exposed to the virus under controlled conditions.

    The letter states, “If done properly, live coronavirus human challenge trials can be an important way to accelerate vaccine development and, ideally, to save the lives of millions around the world as well as help rescue global economies.

    “We strongly recommend that production of the unattenuated virus begin immediately consistent with good manufacturing practices for potential use in trials that balance risks and benefits and respect the safety and autonomy of volunteers.

    “It is also vitally important that there is both full transparency on the vaccine development and trial process and a diverse group of trial participants necessary to provide a broadly effective and universally available vaccine.

    Professor Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, which has one of the leading prototype coronavirus vaccines is one of the signatures on the letter in favour of challenge trials.

    Mr Hill said that such human challenge studies could be introduced “in the coming months.”

    However, Dr Francis Collins, director of the NIH, has said that such trials are only “on the table for discussion - not on the table to start designing a plan.”