There's Money in Voluntary Coronavirus Vaccine Testing, Say Academics

Heroic youths who volunteer to be infected with coronavirus might help find a vaccine to COVID-19, and save the world from the pandemic, argue scientists.
Brad Bergan

In a time of crisis, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or so says a group of academics.

While the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the world, 100 heroic youths should volunteer to get a vaccine for the global disease — amounting to voluntary infection — in a bid to save the world, argues a group of academics, according to the MIT Technology Review.


To get infected with the novel coronavirus, or not

The idea of a "challenge trial" for COVID-19 vaccines is automatically controversial, but with great risk comes the potential for great success, according to a recent proposal posted online, which offers fast evidence that a vaccine shot will or won't work.

"We need fresh ideas to get out of the #COVID19 (sic) dilemma of sacrificing the economy, health care system, or both," tweeted a Harvard University epidemiologist named Marc Lipsitch, who cosigned the proposal with a bioethicist at Rutgers University named Nir Eyal, and a statistician from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine named Peter Smith.

However, some experts think a vaccine is the best hope to end the pandemic. One potential vaccine developed by Moderna Therapeutics of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is already seeing initial safety tests on healthy volunteers in Washington state.

Nobody has a virus squirted up their nose on purpose because, obviously, few would find that scenario pleasant, let alone ethical. The catch is clear, say the authors: "Challenging volunteers with this live virus risks inducing severe disease and possibly even death."

Infected for the cause

However, the risk might be worth it for society at large, argue the academics, since intentionally infecting vaccinated people will unveil the cold hard truth regarding its effectiveness.

Myron Levine — an expert in challenge trials of the University of Maryland — argues the idea isn't yet merited. Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that people between 20 and 44 represent 20% of hospitalized cases of people who have contracted COVID-19 in the U.S., with a 1 in 750 death rate.

"Is this something you would allow your loved one to participate in?' Levine asks. "Ask yourself that."

Levine further claimed he's been doing challenge tests since 1970, with diseases like cholera, so there's precedence for purposeful infection. He went on to say such studies are permissible in specific scenarios. One is where people are given a weakened, attenuated version of the virus. Another scenario happens when a drug cure immediately available, should the vaccine fail to stop a dangerous virus.

However, there's no drug treatment yet available for dangerous cases of pneumonia that come with COVID-19.

While none of them are doctors, and despite lacking a failsafe alternative treatment, the three authors of the new proposal say they think younger adults who usually suffer no serious illness from infection could make an informed choice to be guinea pigs, and help save the world from COVID-19. Since they will likely experience infection eventually, it's not a weak argument.