The British government announced Wednesday that a human challenge study, which will see healthy young volunteers deliberated infected with the coronavirus, has been approved by an ethics committee.
Now, researchers are calling for volunteers, as the trials are slated to start within a month.
“We are asking for volunteers aged between 18 and 30 to join this research endeavour and help us to understand how the virus infects people and how it passes so successfully between us,” Chief Investigator Dr. Chris Chiu, a faculty member of the Department of Infectious Disease at the Imperial College London, said in a statement.
The study is being conducted through a partnership between Imperial College London, the government’s Vaccines Taskforce, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and the clinical company hVIVO. Up to 90 healthy volunteers are needed, according to a press release from Open Orphan, the parent company of hVIVO.
“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,” Chiu said.
The controversial trials, which will allow scientists to monitor the virus’ behavior and how it responds to vaccines, were first announced last October.
The virus researchers will use in the trials was produced at Great Ormond Street Hospital. To begin, the trial will use the original version of the virus “that has been circulating in the U.K. since March 2020 and has been shown to be of low risk in young healthy adults,” the government explained in a press release. Testing on different variants may follow.
The trials will be conducted in “secure clinical research facilities” that are “specifically designed to contain the virus,” according to the government, which stressed that the safety of trial participants was paramount.
“Highly trained medics and scientists will be on hand to carefully examine how the virus behaves in the body and to ensure the safety of volunteers,” it said.
The hope is that this study will help researchers understand “how the immune system reacts to coronavirus and identify factors that influence how the virus is transmitted, including how a person who is infected with COVID-19 virus transmits infectious virus particles into the environment,” the government statement explained.
Once the most appropriate dosage of the virus has been found, vaccines and treatments will be tested against it.
“It is essential that we continue to develop new vaccines and treatments for COVID-19,” Clive Dix, interim chair of the U.K.’s Vaccines Taskforce, said. “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.”
When the trials were first announced last fall, U.K. Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam detailed two main reasons that his government had decided to sponsor them.
“First, for the many vaccines still in the mid-stages of development, human challenge studies may help pick out the most promising ones to take forward into larger Phase III trials,” he said. “Second, for vaccines which are in the late stages of development and already proven to be safe and effective through Phase III studies, human challenge studies could help us further understand if the vaccines prevent transmission as well as preventing illness.”
Wednesday’s news was hailed by 1Day Sooner, an advocacy group that has been petitioning governments worldwide to allow challenge trials.
“1Day Sooner congratulates Imperial College London and the UK Vaccine Taskforce on receiving ethical and regulatory approval for their planned COVID-19 human challenge trial,” the organization said in a statement.
The advocacy group believes challenge trials could help to make access to vaccines more equitable.
“Most licensed COVID-19 vaccines have been pre-purchased by wealthy countries, and human challenge trials can accelerate next-generation vaccine testing so that we can vaccinate the entire world as soon as possible,” it read.
Alastair Fraser-Urquhart, a spokesperson for 1Day Sooner, told ABC News, he is glad the trials are moving forward. Fraser-Urquhart, 18, has been through the selection process and is hopeful he will be selected as a trial participant.
“I think without challenge trials we’ll struggle to have more vaccines, and without challenge trials the pandemic could go on for much longer than it needs to,” he said.