Worries Arise as UK Plans COVID-19 Human Challenge Trials

by Audrey Chang ’23

Source: Bio World

Published Nov. 15th, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies throughout the world, experts are trying to develop a cure for the virus.

In the United Kingdom, the government plans on combining efforts with a company, hVIVO, to run human challenge trials for the coronavirus. Dozens of people will be deliberately exposed to doses of the virus in a controlled environment, sparking ethical concerns among the general public.

If the challenge trials receive ethical and regulatory approval, the project will begin in January of 2021 in the high-level isolation unit of the Royal Free Hospital in London, UK. 

The research team will conduct the challenge trials in several phases. Researchers will first give controlled doses of the virus to volunteers to identify the smallest dose that affects the majority of the people. Upon this discovery, the research team may then move on to vaccine trials. They will aim to recruit about 500 participants, taking note of the effectiveness and side effects of each vaccine tested.

Human challenge trials have proven useful in developing vaccines for diseases such as smallpox, malaria, and influenza. These trials allow for closer studies of the disease, providing researchers with additional insight into the effectiveness of certain vaccines.

Proponents of the trials argue that considering the hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, any additional waiting will be unethical as the wait will only cause more death and damage.

There are hundreds of other COVID-19 vaccines under development, and some argue that by the time the challenge trials start, there could be a vaccine already. Despite this, experts claim that several vaccines will most likely be needed to effectively cure the virus for different people, justifying the need for the vaccine challenge trials.

Even though the virus will only be exposed to up to 90 healthy people between the ages of 18 to 30, numerous ethical concerns have arisen. One such problem is the genuine possibility of death, as no foreseeable evidence is given about how different people will react to COVID-19 upon exposure. Additionally, because the group of participants is only between the ages of 18 to 30, there is the question of whether or not people above the age of 30 would react to the virus’s dosage in the same way.

As researchers and experts continue seeking a safe and effective cure to this deadly virus, the ethicality of challenge trials have caused much debate as to whether these ventures are necessary.

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