Why people are volunteering to get Covid-19
A controversial plan could get us a vaccine sooner.
By Laura Bult
With thousands of people dying of Covid-19 every day, the sooner a vaccine can be deemed safe and effective, the better. But vaccine development is a lengthy process that isn’t easy to rush. In part, that’s because of the final step in testing any vaccine: the phase III trial.
Phase III trials require tens of thousands of volunteers, each of whom get either a placebo or an experimental vaccine. Then vaccine developers have to wait until a statistically significant number of them, going about their lives normally, eventually get naturally infected. This step alone can often take years.
When it comes to Phase III trials for a Covid-19 vaccine specifically, there are extra concerns relating to the reality of fluctuating infection rates throughout the world, making it difficult to set up a successful trial where participants are likely to get naturally infected.
The Oxford University vaccine researchers have already had to change the location of their Phase III trial from the UK — where, in June, rates of infection had fallen — to Brazil and South Africa, where rates had started to surge. A team in China did something similar, changing the location of their Phase III trial from mainland China to the United Arab Emirates.
In light of those concerns, some epidemiologists and scientists are calling for something called a human challenge trial. Instead of chasing the moving target of infection rates and waiting for participants to get sick naturally, a human challenge trial involves a small group of young, healthy participants becoming deliberately infected in a lab setting. The challenge study alone could take as little as a month, but it would need to happen after a trial to determine the correct dosing of a virus, and before a larger scale safety study. But all of that could still be faster than a typical Phase III trial.
This isn’t a new concept. Human challenge trials have been used to develop vaccines or treatments for lots of diseases, like cholera, typhoid, malaria, influenza, and common cold viruses. But what sets Covid-19 apart from those diseases is that it currently has no effective treatment. Because it’s so new, we also aren’t fully aware of its long-term health effects. Unlike other human challenge trials, a Covid-19 challenge trial would entail a risk of serious illness — and even death.
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In this day and age, understanding bacteria and viruses and developing vaccines are national security issues. In my view sizable part of every country’s defense budget should be spent in these pursuits rather than making tanks and other weapons.
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