Feb. 18, 2021 — The UK will conduct the world’s first coronavirus human challenge study, which means healthy volunteers will be deliberately infected with the coronavirus, government officials announced on Wednesday.
The trial will begin within the month and will help scientists better understand the virus and test treatments and vaccines. Researchers are calling on young people to volunteer and play a role in the trial, which has been approved by the UK’s clinical trials ethics body.
“We have secured a number of safe and effective vaccines for the UK, but it is essential that we continue to develop new vaccines and treatments for COVID-19,” Clive Dix, interim chair of the UK’s Vaccines Taskforce, said in a statement.
“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,” he said.
During the first stage, up to 90 healthy volunteers between ages 18-30 will be exposed to the coronavirus in a controlled environment to determine the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection. Researchers will use the version of the virus that has been circulating in the UK since March 2020 and poses a low risk of complications for healthy young adults.
As part of the trial, volunteers will be infected through droplets that are squirted up the nose and will be closely monitored during a hospital stay. Patients will receive scratch-and-sniff cards to detect loss of smell and undergo cognitive tests on a computer tablet, along with regular blood and heart rate tests.
After the initial study, volunteers may receive a COVID-19 vaccine to test the most effective vaccine options in a head-to-head comparison.
“Our eventual aim is to establish which vaccines and treatments work best in beating this disease, but we need volunteers to support us in this work,” Chris Chiu, MD, the chief investigator from Imperial College London, said in the statement.
Coronavirus-related human challenge trials have been controversial, according to The Washington Post, because volunteers are being infected with a deadly virus. Even though the UK studies will test small doses in controlled settings, some public health officials have questioned whether challenge trials are needed.
At the same time, the human challenge trials could lead to the development of new COVID-19 vaccines, including ones that may protect against variants. These types of studies have been used to develop vaccines for cholera, malaria and typhoid.
The trials “give ourselves the potential to test new vaccines very quickly, and that’s really the primary purpose of this effort,” Robert Read, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Southampton, told the newspaper.
Volunteers will receive 4,500 pounds, or about $6,200, for participating in the study, which will include a 17-day quarantine at the Royal Free Hospital in north London and follow-up appointments for a year. People who are interested in participating in the human challenge studies should visit the UK COVID Challenge website.