UK to infect healthy volunteers in COVID-19 vaccine research trial

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020
UK to infect healthy patients in COVID-19 vaccine research trial
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Imperial College London and a group of researchers said Tuesday that they are preparing to infect 90 healthy young volunteers with the virus, becoming the first to announce plans to use the technique to study COVID-19 and potentially speed up development of a vaccine that could help end the pandemic.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A London university team with the British government will begin an unusual study to potentially speed up the development of a vaccine that could help end the pandemic.

Imperial College London and the NHS along with a team of researchers are starting their quest for data by infecting healthy individuals with the novel coronavirus.

According to the college, the study would recruit volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 with no previous history or symptoms of COVID-19, no underlying health conditions and no known adverse risk factors for the virus, such as heart disease, diabetes or obesity.

The first round of volunteers will be exposed to the virus without being given a vaccine. Researchers will monitor patients for the level of exposure needed to become sick and their immune system's response.

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Volunteers in later rounds will receive a potential vaccine prior to being infected with COVID-19.

"Deliberately infecting volunteers with a known human pathogen is never undertaken lightly, said Professor Peter Openshaw, co-investigator on the study. "However, such studies are enormously informative about a disease, even one so well studied as COVID-19."

Human challenge studies have been used to develop vaccines for diseases including typhoid, cholera and malaria.

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Imperial College said the study, involving volunteers aged 18 to 30, would be conducted in partnership with the government's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and hVIVO, a company that has experience conducting challenge studies. The government plans to invest 33.6 million pounds ($43.4 million) in the research.

"We're basically watching disease in motion," said Martin Johnson Senior Medical Director at hVivo. "Right from the very start of inoculation right through to the disease going out of the body."

The "Human Trial Challenges" are viewed as a necessary risk to finding a cure to an infectious disease.

Dr. Chris Chiu, from the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London and lead researcher on the human challenge studies, said in a statement on Tuesday, "Human challenge studies can increase our understanding of COVID-19 in unique ways and accelerate development of the many potential new COVID-19 treatments and vaccines."

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The trials will take place in a residential facility and volunteers will have to test negative in two tests before being able to leave.

"I can potentially protect thousands of other people from having to be infected without consenting to it," volunteer Alastair Fraser-Urquhart said.

Governments around the world are funding efforts to develop a vaccine in hopes of ending the pandemic that has pummeled the global economy, putting millions of people out of work. 46 potential vaccines are already in human testing, with 11 of them in late-stage trials - several are expected to report results later this year or in early 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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