A COVID-19 trial that will see healthy young people paid £4,500 ($6,227) to be deliberately infected with coronavirus has been given ethics approval in the U.K.
The human challenge study, the first of its kind into coronavirus, will help to identify the most effective vaccines and accelerate their development, the U.K. government said on Wednesday.
Human challenge studies, which have been successfully used in the past to develop vaccines for malaria and cholera, involve deliberately infecting volunteers to test the effectiveness of vaccines.
In this case, up to 90 carefully selected healthy adult volunteers — aged 18-30 — will be exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 to help researchers understand how the virus infects people and how it is transmitted. Scientists also aim to establish the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection.
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After this initial ‘virus characterization’ study, a number of volunteers may be given vaccine candidates, which have proven safe in clinical trials, before then being exposed to COVID-19.
“We expect these studies to offer unique insights into how the virus works and help us understand which promising vaccines offer the best chance of preventing infection,” said Dr. Clive Dix, the interim chair of the government’s Vaccines Taskforce.
The U.K. reached its target of offering a first vaccine dose to 15 million people by the middle of February, and aims to vaccinate all over 50s by the end of April. Two vaccines developed by Pfizer PFE, +0.58% and BioNTech BNTX, -0.72%, and AstraZeneca AZN, -0.27% and the University of Oxford are currently being used in the U.K. rollout. Moderna’s MRNA, -0.99% vaccine has also been given emergency-use authorization and doses are expected to arrive before Easter (Apr. 4).
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the human challenge study could “eventually further the rapid development” of vaccines in the long term.
“While there has been very positive progress in vaccine development, we want to find the best and most effective vaccines for use over the longer term,” he said. The study is being conducted by the government’s task force, Imperial College London, the Royal Free London National Health Service Foundation Trust, and Irish company Open Orphan’s ORPH, +1.64% subsidiary hVivo.
Researchers will use the version of COVID-19 that has been circulating in the U.K. since March 2020 in the characterization study. The government said it has been shown to be of “low risk in young healthy adults.” The volunteers, who have been urged to sign up for the study, will be closely monitored by medics and scientists 24 hours a day.
See also: U.K. hits vaccine target with more than 15 million people given first shot
Prof. Terence Stephenson, chair of the Health Research Authority, whose ethics committee approved the trial, said: “The sum is about £4,500 but that covers the initial stay and follow-up,” according to various media reports.
Open Orphan executive chairman Cathal Friel told MarketWatch the amount of compensation was set by the ethics panel, reflecting an amount suitable for two weeks in quarantine. Human challenge study volunteers are typically paid £3,500, he said, adding it wouldn’t be unusual to expect a small amount higher than that for a COVID-19 study.
A separate trial to assess whether people can be given different vaccines for their first and second doses was launched in the U.K. earlier this month. If the study shows mixing and matching vaccines provides the same or better protection, it may prevent potential supply problems in the months ahead. As the U.K. presses on with vaccinating those under the age of 70, it also needs to give second doses in the weeks ahead to those who have already had their first one.