The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that deliberately infecting healthy volunteers with the virus that caused the deadly coronavirus may speed studies of vaccines against it.
A report posted on Wednesday on their website says that this step that causes significant potential dangers to subjects may be considered only in dire situations and with certain disclosures and protections.
Drugmakers across the world are racing to make a vaccine to fight off this highly infectious virus. These so-called challenge studies, where treatments or preventatives are tested directly against the infection in informed volunteers, might speed the path of vaccines to the public.
Challenge studies “can be substantially faster to conduct than vaccine field trials,” according to the working group paper, “in part because far fewer participants need to be exposed to experimental vaccines in order to provide (preliminary) estimates of efficacy and safety.”
The report outlined 8 conditions that would be required for challenge studies to be considered-- including scientific justification, an assessment of potential benefits, and the fully informed consent of subjects.
The studies should ideally be limited to young, healthy adults from 18 to 30 years old initially. Tests may also prioritize people who are most likely to contract the infection while taking care not to inappropriately target the poor and otherwise socially vulnerable, the report said.
According to the report, since health care workers already face a higher probability of contracting the novel virus and are the best-informed about associated risks, they would be particularly appropriate for coronavirus challenge studies.
While these types of studies hold the potential to reduce coronavirus mortality around the world, they also pose significant potential dangers for volunteers.
“I’m not sure I am a huge fan of it really for both practical and ethical reasons,” said Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, during a presentation put on by the health news organization Stat on Wednesday. “As is often the case, the devil is in the details.”
So far, the novel coronavirus that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December has infected more than 3.5 people worldwide. The global economy has come to a standstill as countries order complete or partial lockdowns.