Viewpoint: Medical ethics shouldn’t stop coronavirus vaccine researchers from experimenting on healthy people

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A Seattle patient receives a shot in the first-stage study of a potential coronavirus vaccine. Credit: Associated Press
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

The pandemic has thrown previous moral assumptions into disarray. …

Research ethics normally prohibits exposing human subjects to significant risk. … But in a pandemic, the overriding aim must be to avoid a potentially catastrophic toll. We all face such heightened risk that restrictions on promising research (beyond the basic requirement of informed consent) could easily prove counterproductive in humanitarian terms.

For covid-19, sufficiently promising treatments should jump to human clinical trials as soon as is reasonably possible, bypassing the usual lengthy period of animal testing.

Does this ethical judgment make sense in a pandemic? The seriousness of the coronavirus cuts both ways: more risk from the initial low-dose infection, but greater benefits if it does protect them. If we can gain solid evidence that receiving a low dose of the virus leads to a mild case of covid-19, and that such mild cases then bring immunity to further exposure to the virus, we would have found a means of saving hundreds of thousands of lives — and millions of livelihoods. In these circumstances, it seems both reasonable and ethical to invite healthy young volunteers to receive a low dose of the virus, followed by quarantine and medical observation.

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