Viewpoint: Human challenge trials – volunteers intentionally infected with COVID-19 – are ‘uninformative, unnecessary and unethical’

vaccine
Credit: David Greedy

Deliberately infecting volunteers with SARS-CoV-2 to test the efficacy of vaccine candidates is unnecessary, uninformative, and unethical.

[O]ne prominent British researcher recently opined that there is only a 50% chance that enough people in the United Kingdom will be infected with the virus for the University of Oxford vaccine field trial (as currently designed) to yield a statistically significant result… On an average day, close to 100,000 newly confirmed cases are reported worldwide, and I cannot recall another disease for which such a number was insufficient for a field trial of a drug or vaccine. Surely, with more time and patience, a real test is possible.

Challenge studies are also uninformative. To the best of my knowledge, all current protocols for vaccine trials envisage enrolling only young, healthy adults. This is understandable from a recruitment perspective, but COVID-19 morbidity and mortality are highest among the elderly, who have a plethora of underlying chronic diseases.

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If such trials are unnecessary, uninformative, and dangerous, then they are by definition unethical. I fear that in the rush to find a “medical miracle” to end the pandemic’s toll in human lives and livelihoods, we will jeopardize the centuries-old moral imperative to do no harm, possibly destroying trust in the integrity of science and medicine for generations to come.

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