Radical proposal to infect healthy volunteers with COVID-19 to speed a vaccine

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As hundreds of millions of people, maybe billions, avoid social contact to spare themselves and their communities from coronavirus, researchers are discussing a dramatic approach to research that could help end the pandemic: infecting a handful of healthy volunteers with the virus to rapidly test a vaccine, reports Nature.

Many scientists see a vaccine as the only solution to the pandemic. Clinical safety trials began this month for one candidate vaccine, and others will soon follow. But one of the biggest hurdles will be showing that a vaccine works. Typically, this is done through large phase III studies, in which thousands to tens of thousands of people receive either a vaccine or a placebo, and researchers track who becomes infected in the course of their daily lives.

A quicker option would be to conduct a ‘human challenge’ study, argue scientists. This would involve exposing perhaps 100 healthy young people to the virus and seeing whether those who get the vaccine escape infection.

Nir Eyal, the director of the Centre for Population-Level Bioethics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, speaks of how the study could be done safely and ethically. Participants, he argues, might even be better off for it.

The main attraction is that they could greatly accelerate the time to approval and potential use. The thing that takes the longest time in testing vaccines is phase III efficacy testing. That’s done on many, many people, some of whom get the vaccine and some of whom get placebos or competing vaccine candidates. Researchers then look for differences between these two groups in infection rates.

However, many people will try to be careful in this outbreak – self-isolate, say – and it will take a very long time until interpretable results emerge. If, instead, one exposes all study participants to the pathogen, one can not only rely on far fewer volunteers but, more importantly, take a much shorter period to get results.

Responding to the question of whether there any precedents for infecting healthy people with a pathogen, Eval said: “We do human-challenge studies for less deadly diseases quite frequently. For example, for influenza, typhoid, cholera and malaria. There are some historical precedents for exposure to very deadly viruses. The thing that demarcates the design that we propose from some of these historical instances is that we feel there is a way to make these trials surprisingly safe.”

In conducting the study, he said you would start only after some preliminary testing to ensure that a vaccine candidate is safe and that it accomplishes an immune response in humans. You then gather a group of people at low risk from any exposure – young and relatively healthy individuals – and ensure that they are not already infected. You give them either the vaccine candidate or a placebo and wait for enough time for an immune response. And then you expose them to the virus.

You then follow all the participants very closely to catch any signs of infection as early as possible. You are trying to check if the group that received the vaccine is doing better than the one that received the placebo. That might be in terms of viral levels, the time until symptoms emerge or whether they’re infected or not.

Eval says: “The risk of harm can be reduced very significantly by selecting people who are relatively young – we envisage between the ages of 20 and 45 – and otherwise healthy. You would also select people who are already likely to be exposed to COVID-19 – either during the trial or sometime later. Unfortunately, there will be many of us who fit this description because we live in high-transmission areas.

“You would also protect study participants by examining them daily or more frequently for infection and by providing them with excellent treatment immediately upon detecting infection. That’s not trivial. I’ve advised critical-care doctors preparing for surges of coronavirus. And we strongly expect – based on the experience in Italy and more – that there will be acute shortages of critical-care resources. By the time vaccine candidates are tried, there may be some treatments that are proven to work. And surely, the brave volunteers we recruit should be assured ready access to those.

“The dramatic-sounding exposure of healthy volunteers to the virus is therefore adding less net risk than you might think. It might even be curiously safer for some to join the study than to await probable infection and then try to rely on the general health-care system.

“It might seem as though anybody volunteering to participate in such a study lacks capacity for rational decision-making or must have misunderstood the informed-consent form. However, human beings do many important things out of altruism. And, as I said, although the study introduces risks, it also removes risks. And the net risks, while unclear, are not clearly extremely high. So, it is actually potentially rational – even from a selfish point of view – to participate in such a study.

“We also let humans volunteer to do risky things all the time. We let people, for example, volunteer to be emergency medical services during this period. That significantly elevates their risk of getting infected. But it’s also very important. In clinical trials in general, we don’t focus only on reducing risks to participants; we focus on achieving a reasonable balance between the added risks that they take and the importance for the community. In this case, vaccines could be our societies’ only way out of the bind between economic stagnation and widespread mortality.”

Nature report

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