UK mulls infecting people with COVID to help with vaccine research

As thousands of volunteers get ready for human challenge trials, experts warn of tragic results

Britain could be moving closer to carrying out studies that would intentionally infect healthy people with the virus to help researchers in their quest for COVID-19 vaccine, a prospect which many scientists believe could lead to tragic consequences.

Thousands of volunteers, though, are ready to go. Open Orphan Plc has said it is in talks with potential customers to conduct tests of COVID shots.

Such dangerous trials are being considered as scientists have warned there could be major delays in producing a COVID-19 vaccine if current UK infection rates remain low and lengthy waiting times are needed to show if candidate products are working. As a result, some researchers insist that ministers must now consider implementing radical alternative measures to speed up vaccine development.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation issued a 19-page set of guidelines on how these trials might operate.

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Some other UK scientists have reacted with horror at the proposal to implement human challenge trials on the grounds that these could cause serious illness and possibly deaths of volunteers who had been deliberately infected with the virus.

Jonathan Ives of the Centre for Ethics in Medicine at Bristol University said. “If we were to do this, we would be asking healthy people to put their wellbeing and their lives at risk for the good of society at large. On the other hand, taking that risk could speed up vaccine development and save many, many lives. So I think there could be grounds for going ahead with challenge trials, though it would be based on a very finely balanced argument.”

The human challenge trials were also supported by Professor Arpana Verma, of Manchester University. “Vaccines give us the ability to protect the most vulnerable people in society. That is one of their key strengths. So I think it would be entirely justifiable to go ahead with such trials.”

But the proposal was firmly opposed by immunologist Professor Eleanor Riley of Edinburgh University. “Challenge studies are done for many diseases but only when strict criteria are followed. Firstly, the virus should be really well studied and its clinical behaviour understood in detail. It should also be incapable of causing severe illness in healthy individuals, or there should be a highly effective drug to clear the infection. None of these criteria are met for COVID-19, and I would be very concerned to hear challenge studies were being planned.”

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