Human Challenge Trial Controversy Heats up

Covid-19 vaccine human challenge trials

The WHO will issue ethical guidelines to inform human challenge trials, South China Morning Post reports, amid aggressive efforts to find a COVID-19 vaccine.

Deliberately infecting healthy human volunteers with a virus to test vaccine candidates can speed the vaccine timeline—but it’s a dangerous tack for a disease with no cure.

With COVID-19, however, proponents argue that the risk of serious illness or death is small in likely recruits—young adults.

"We actually ask people to take such risks for others’ direct gain every time we ask volunteer firefighters to rush into burning buildings, relatives to donate a live organ to loved ones, healthy volunteers to participate in drug and vaccine toxicity trials with no prospect of improving their health (and some risk of undermining it)," Peter Smith, a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine professor, and co-authors wrote in a debate-framing article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Still, ethical and practical questions abound, thoroughly detailed by Helen Branswell in STAT. Young people have gotten seriously ill or died from COVID-19. And, developing a model for a human challenge trial is a painstaking, lengthy process.