COVID-19 human challenge trial seeks young healthy volunteers

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Southampton is set to be part of a trial aiming to infect and closely monitor up to 90 low-risk healthy volunteers to better understand the disease and speed up vaccine development.

This ‘human challenge’ trial is the world’s first for COVID-19 and has been approved by the UK’s clinical trials regulatory body. Due to start in a few weeks, it has been designed and planned by a consortium of clinical investigators, including the Director of the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, Professor Robert Read.

Studying coronavirus infection

This initial trial aims to establish the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection, but it is hoped that further trials will follow.

It will monitor up to 90 healthy 18 to 30 year olds, who are at low risk of developing complications, after they are given the virus in a safe, controlled environment.

Following the initial screening, the participants will go into quarantine at the Royal Free hospital in London, and two days later will be given the virus via drops into their nose. They will then be monitored 24 hours a day for a minimum of 14 days, with daily nose swabs and blood samples.

The researchers will continue to follow up with them for a year to check for any long-lasting symptoms, with a total of around £4,500 compensation offered for this time to cover expenses.

The researchers hope that this initial trial will give a better understanding of the disease, including shedding of the virus, transmission, and how the body’s immune system responds to it.

Developing vaccines faster

“One of the important reasons for wanting to do this study is that it is the fastest way to evaluate novel vaccines,” said Professor Read.

Falling rates of COVID-19, while an obvious cause for celebration, make it harder to conduct vaccine trials and mean they take longer. Human challenge trials would allow vaccine development and improvement to continue at pace, even with fewer cases as the virus is brought under control. 

Human challenge trials could also be valuable as a faster way to discover new or modified vaccines that are more effective against new variants, and likely to be useful for developing boosters. 

 “A human challenge allows you to vaccinate volunteers and then infect them in a controlled way with the virus, to compare perhaps new vaccines with first-generation vaccines to provide information to the regulatory authorities so that they can understand the potential of novel vaccines head to head with the established vaccines that already exist,” adds Prof Read.

Taking part

The researchers are looking for healthy 18 to 30 year olds not previously exposed to the virus. If you are interested in taking part, please register your interest on the UK COVID Challenge website.

Posted on Friday 19 February 2021