Kiwis volunteer to be deliberately infected with Covid-19 to speed up vaccine research

Thousands of people, including more than a dozen people in New Zealand, have signed up to volunteer for a controversial vaccine trial technique for Covid-19.

Your playlist will load after this ad

1 NEWS reporter Kimberlee Downs looks at the risks, the ethics and the potential payoff. Source: 1 NEWS

It involves being deliberately infected with coronavirus in order to test a vaccine, in a bid to speed up its development.

Called "Human Challenge Studies", the technique has been used before but is uncommon, and in this case volunteers are signing up to be infected with a disease that has no cure, making it an ethical minefield.

"The question is what level would you set that risk- benefit ratio," Otago University bioethics professor Neil Pickering told 1 NEWS.

"The risk is obviously that someone takes part in this trial, develops a case of Covid because the potential vaccine turns out to be no good, and then suffers one of the severe consequences of it - for instance, dies."

However there is also significant upside. Infectious diseases expert professor David Murdoch, from the University of Otago, Christchurch, says it would likely shave months off the time it talks for a vaccine to get licensed.

But he says these sort of studies usually use a strain of the virus that causes milder symptoms.

"Are we in a position to actually get a strain of Covid that will not cause a severe disease?

"I don't know, but that will be an important thing to take into consideration."

Normal vaccine tests are done in three phases, with the final phases involving thousands of people who are given either the vaccine or a placebo and monitored for months to see if they get the virus.

No human challenge studies for Coronavirus are currently being planned, however professor Pickering says there "is a bit of a groundswell in favour of these trials" among the bioethics community.

It has also been the focus of a group named "1 Day Sooner", who are gathering a list of volunteers should any human challenge trial be approved.

One member of the group - who is also volunteering for a trial - is 23-year-old Carson Poltorack.

"Every single day that we can reduce the time until the vaccine deployment is hundreds of thousands of people who are less sick, and tens of thousands of people who will not die," he told 1 NEWS.

Wellington-based American, 25-year-old Leah Everist, has also signed up.

"It feels like putting my name forward is the right thing to do," she says.

"There are risks in all kinds of things you do and this is one which feels like the potential benefits really outweigh the risk."

The group is only in its initial stages of gauging interest, but more than 16,000 people from more than 100 countries have opted to volunteer.

Earlier this week the World Health Organisation published guidelines for an ethical coronavirus vaccine challenge.

Professor Pickering says is "probably a level of risk" at which a properly informed person could be permitted to take part.

Risks would also be mitigated by only including young, healthy people.

However, that also raises questions.

"Are the results from that sort of study generalisable to the wider population?

"And that question can only really be answered by the more traditional phase three trial," says professor Murdoch.

Mr Poltorack emphasises this "could" be helpful, and "we should do everything possible to prepare for the possibility that it could be helpful".

But he says they are not saying it is the only way forward, as the race to save lives and livelihoods continues.