Like so many others around the world, I’ve spent months watching the pain and misery caused by the pandemic, and I want to do what I can to help – even if it means risking my health.
As a second-year A-level student, I spent a lot of the summer reading up on news about vaccines and vaccine development.
During one of my searches, I came across 1Day Sooner – a non-profit organisation advocating for a so-called challenge trial, in which volunteers are deliberately exposed to a virus (in this case, Covid-19) to test for a vaccine in a matter of weeks.
This is unlike conventional clinical research, which can take months or years. In the context of Covid-19, volunteers are given a vaccine or placebo, and are then sent off to live their daily lives to test the treatment’s efficacy.
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Challenge trials will let scientists quickly narrow the vast field of vaccines in a way that no other trial design could hope to replicate, helping to bring the pandemic to a swifter end. And by doing so, saving lives.
Additionally, it could answer essential questions about Covid-19: how it spreads in its early stages, how long natural immunity lasts, and how our immune system fights off the virus.
It’s a unique opportunity to monitor the virus 24/7, as participants would have round the clock medical attention and care.
All of this information would significantly advance our scientific understanding of the virus, allowing scientists to fight the pandemic more effectively on all fronts.
The obvious downside is that you have to expose volunteers to coronavirus, which is risky – given that virtually the whole world has been trying to prevent infections, causing them seems counter-productive. Yet, infecting volunteers with the virus will help us test vaccines more quickly.
Conventional trials wait for volunteers to encounter coronavirus in their day-to-day lives, but since everyone is taking preventative steps to avoid catching the virus, you can expect these trials to last between six months to a year. Which, at the moment, is time the world can ill afford.
Every day we wait for an effective vaccine costs thousands of lives. This is why challenge trials are so important – so far, around 39,000 people, including myself, have volunteered to take part.
I’m fortunate not to have had deaths in my family due to coronavirus, but the nagging fear of putting my grandparents and dad at risk pushes me towards helping.
I’m lucky that my friends and family have been incredibly supportive. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about it, and they understand why I feel the need to do this. They think I’m making a good decision.
What worries me is the possibility of long-term health effects, as we simply don’t know enough about the virus to have a good idea of how it could impact us in the future
Although I’ve not spoken to a doctor about the risks, there will be screening processes to ensure I don’t have any undiagnosed problems, and every volunteer has to give informed consent, so has to learn about and agree to the risks they are taking on.
After all, research shows that the risk of death for young volunteers is lower than other risks taken in the name of public service. According to to the Lancet Journal of Infectious Diseases, the risk of death from Covid-19 for people aged between 20-29 is one in 3,300.
I’m 18 years old, which means it’s even lower – with an analysis of 111 studies putting this figure at one in 25,000.
To provide some context, that’s lower than the risk of death from kidney donation.
I don’t have any pre-existing conditions and any trial would feature intense medical screening of volunteers, which means that the only people taking part are free of comorbidities.
What worries me is the possibility of long-term health effects, as we simply don’t know enough about the virus to have a good idea of how it could impact us in the future. So-called ‘Long Covid’ leaves recovered patients with lung and heart issues for weeks and months after infection.
I’ve spent a long time dwelling on these risks, but I’m still ready to take them on for the benefit of others. The stakes are too high to think otherwise: if challenge trials are delayed and vaccine rollout is stymied, then elderly and immunocompromised people will continue to lose their lives.
The wider societal impact means children are kept from proper education, and businesses, small and large, are boarded up, while the world remains at least partially shut down.
Some scientists aren’t in favour of a trial like this, which infects healthy people with the virus. They believe that it’s unethical as it poses a higher risk, especially as we don’t have any effective treatment for coronavirus yet.
But personally, I think these concerns are misguided.
If people are allowed to consent to other risks for the common good, such as healthcare workers showing up to work in crowded hospitals or firefighters running into burning buildings to save lives, then the same should be allowed in research.
Given that accelerating vaccine development by just one day could save thousands of lives, I think the risks of a challenge trial, though significant, are entirely justified.
I have submitted an official petition calling on Parliament to fund preparation for human challenge trials. It’s already been signed by Lord Ara Darzi, Nobel Prize winner Sir Richard Roberts, and the head of medical ethics at Oxford, Dominic Wilkinson.
Should a trial materialise and a researcher spray the coronavirus into my nose, I know I will worry about long-term lung and heart damage. But that worry pales in comparison to the benefits of getting a vaccine sooner.
No more delays. Challenge trials will save lives. Let us run them.
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