Scientists in the UK are ready to consciously infect healthy volunteers with the coronavirus. Thus, this will be the first, controlled coronavirus infection study in the world to determine the effectiveness of a potential vaccine.
The study will begin in January 2021 in an isolated building in London, according to the Financial Times. Volunteers are vaccinated with a possible vaccine a month before the study, after which scientists will intentionally infect them with the Sars-Cov-2 virus.
The ultimate goal of these studies is to save time – scientists will artificially create an environment where a vaccinated individual can be confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. In the case of the flu vaccine, it took at least a few months: a vaccinated person would continue to live in the wild and, if scientists were lucky, would be independently infected with the virus. The study of controlled human infection will allow scientists to identify the most promising vaccines.
Edward Jenner, a scientist, living in England at the time, understood that cow smokers were protected from yellow because they had a milder disease, a cow smallpox. To prove his hypothesis, Jenner took a piece of tissue from an ulcer on the smoker’s hand and injected it into his co-worker’s perfectly healthy boy, after which he deliberately sickened him with a smallpox. It is easy to imagine how ethical it is to infect your co-worker’s son with a potentially deadly disease who cannot refuse this manipulation.
Edward Jenner gave the child another 20 doses of the smallpox to make sure the vaccine worked. After that, he conducted similar experiments for 2 years on employees, poor farmers, and their children. To imagine how risky this activity was, you have to understand what went on the other side of the scales: if people could not be helped by the Jenner vaccine, it would turn out that he was deliberately killing them.
Similar ethical issues are not on the agenda of COVID-19 studies: there are young and healthy people involved in the study who have a lower risk of disease than older people. However, it is also difficult to argue that all this is not risky.
Of course, intentional infection with the coronavirus also has its ethical challenges. For example, we do not currently have an accurate midpoint of effectively treating the disease, and they are still discovering distant difficulties of the disease. The study should be authorized by an independent ethics committee. Added to this is the UK Health and Medical Products Regulatory Agency, which has to weigh the risks and potential benefits of the study.