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

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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