When it comes to fighting viruses, the more scientists know about the virus, the easier it will be for them to develop vaccines and antidotes. In the past twelve months, an enormous amount of important global knowledge has been gained about the novel coronavirus. But many questions remain unanswered. So scientists in Great Britain are using a new approach: the so-called “human challenge experiments”. In doing so, healthy people are already consciously infected with the virus in a controlled environment. This allows new approaches and hypotheses to be tried. However, from an ethical point of view, this approach is indisputable. For example, the Association of Research-based Pharmaceutical Companies in Germany rejects such studies. In the past, “human challenge trials” were used, for example, to search for influenza or malaria. Now it will be used for the first time with the Coronavirus.
The immune system response must be better understood
The study is being conducted in collaboration with Imperial College London and the hVivo Pharmaceutical Research Institute. The study was funded, among other things, by the British government, which provided the equivalent of 38.9 million euros. This also finances compensation test persons. The exact amount is still unknown. However, as a first step, 90 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 should be specifically infected. Before that, they must undergo a detailed medical examination. The researchers then want to note, among other things, how the immune system reacts to a particular viral load. It is also investigating how virus particles are released into the environment. Later on, the study will help develop vaccines, among other things. In this way, new agents can be tested with high efficiency because much fewer test subjects are required.
Results cannot be transferred easily
However, to begin with, the classic pathogen that has spread worldwide over the past year only will be examined. However, the more contagious B.1.1.7 mutation is not part of the study. To ensure participants’ safety, test subjects are also monitored by doctors around the clock. The extent to which the results can actually be used is controversial. Because studies like this can only be done in young and healthy people. Therefore, the results are not necessarily applicable to all population groups. However, with the Coronavirus in particular, the elderly and the chronically ill are particularly vulnerable. Additionally, infection in the laboratory is by no means equivalent to an infection in the wild. This is another reason that results cannot be easily portrayed. In the end, despite these shortcomings, researchers in Great Britain decided to conduct an experiment.