Why Oxford researchers are intentionally infecting people with COVID-19

Scientists debate ethics of U.K.'s challenge trials
University of Oxford
Posted at 1:29 PM, Apr 22, 2021

Researchers in the United Kingdom have just launched a controversial new study called a challenge trial where they will intentionally infect volunteers with the virus that causes COVID-19.

The study at the University of Oxford is just the second human challenge trial for COVID-19. The first, at Imperial College London, began last month.

Oxford plans to take 64 young volunteers who have had COVID-19 before and intentionally expose them to the virus again. Sponsors say the approach will let them learn things about the virus and the immune response they could not learn otherwise.

“We can look at the durability of protection. We can see how long their protection lasts,” said Prof. Helen McShane, the trial’s lead investigator. “It will be a tool to allow us to develop next-generation vaccines.”

In a tightly controlled hospital environment, researchers will spray the virus in volunteers’ noses to establish exactly how much virus it takes to reinfect someone, and figure out how many antibodies and T-cells are necessary for protection.

Volunteers will be given a monoclonal antibody treatment if they develop symptoms. They will receive nearly $7,000 in compensation for their time.

“People have a range of reasons for why they want to participate,” said Josh Morrison, the co-founder of 1Day Sooner.

The group has advocated for challenge trials since the start of the pandemic and has recruited nearly 40,000 volunteers.

“It's basically wanting to help humanity and wanting to help expand the frontiers of science,” he said. “Wanting to be a part of something positive, and be active and not a passive victim of the epidemic.”

In the Imperial College study, researchers are infecting unvaccinated volunteers who have never had COVID-19.

Both studies involve healthy individuals between the ages of 18 and 30.

“The chance of dying in that population is clearly under 1 in 10,000; less than kidney donation, less than childbirth,” said Morrison. “I think there's a lot of people including myself who think that the risks are worth the benefits.”

However, many scientists disagree. The U.K. is the only country so far to approve a challenge trial.

“I admire the altruism of the younger adults who have volunteered for this. I don't know if they really understand what the potential long term sequela and the risk side is,” said Dr. Gary Firestein, UC San Diego’s Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences.

Dr. Firestein said the risk of death may be low for these young volunteers, but the consequences of long haul COVID-19 are still mysterious. And he questions the scientific benefit.

“I'm not sure how much we're going to gain in terms of public health learning that it takes 1,000, 10,000 versus 100,000 live virus particles for someone to develop active disease,” he said.

He also wonders how much correlation there is between an 18-year-old exposed in a lab and a 75-year-old exposed in a restaurant.

“I don't know if a direct delivery really mimics that,” he said.

Scientists have done challenge trials in the past on other pathogens like smallpox, influenza, cholera and malaria, but Dr. Firestein said those trials were done before there were widely available vaccines.

“The reasons for doing it at this point are less compelling than they were before,” he said.

Now that we have working vaccines in millions of arms, he thinks we’re better off using real-world data.

This story was originally published by Derek Staahl at KGTV.