The UK Government have announced a £33.6 million investment backing studies in partnership with Imperial College London, hVIVO and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust to establish human challenge trials of coronavirus.
Joining forces against coronavirus
Experts from the NHS, academia and the private sector announced on Tuesday plans to join forces with the government to explore new studies to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Human challenge studies have a history of providing valuable insight into disease. They have specifically played important roles in accelerating development of treatments for diseases, including malaria and cholera. Within these studies, a vaccine candidate that has been proven safe in initial trials is given to a small number of healthy volunteers who are then deliberately exposed to the virus. This all occurs in a safe and controlled environment, with scientists closely monitoring the effect on volunteers, 24 hours per day. This enables scientists to determine exactly how the vaccine works and allows them to identify any side effects.
The aim of the research will be to initially discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause COVID-19 infection in small groups of healthy individuals aged 18 to 30 (lowest risk of harm). These types of studies offer the opportunity to accelerate development of promising vaccines, delivering them to the public quicker.
Ethical concerns of human challenge trials
Infecting people deliberating with a deadly pathogen is uncharted medical and bioethical territory. Many have specifically raised concerns about the safety and value of these studies. Whereas, others argue that they can be run safely and ethically. Additionally, people believe that the benefits of identifying an effective vaccine outweigh the low risks to participants.
If approved by regulators and the ethics committee, the studies would likely commence in January with results expected by May 2021.
Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated:
“We are doing everything we can to fight coronavirus, including backing our best and brightest scientists and researchers in their hunt for a safe and effective vaccine.
The funding announced today for these groundbreaking but carefully controlled studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines which will ultimately help in beginning our return to normal life.”
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