Human challenge trials are controversial, but may just help us get a COVID-19 vaccine sooner. File Photo.
Human challenge trials are controversial, but may just help us get a COVID-19 vaccine sooner. File Photo.

OPINION: The risky way to speed up a COVID-19 vaccine

WITH many potential COVID-19 vaccines now in the final stage trials, the world waits with bated breath for a solution to what has become a global catastrophe.

But human trials are not a particularly speedy pursuit and we may still have up to a years wait; all the while people will continue to get sick and die as we struggle to contain the virus the old fashioned way.

But what if we could speed up the process?

In 1796, the father of vaccines, Edward Jenner, injected a young boy with the cowpox virus. Once the boy recovered, he was injected once again, this time with the deadly smallpox virus, in what was the first human challenge trial ever conducted.

In one fell (albeit terrifying) swoop, history was changed and a vaccine for smallpox was introduced into the world, saving countless lives.

Since then, human challenge trials - where a person is injected with a vaccine and then deliberately exposed to the disease - have been used to test influenza, malaria, typhoid, dengue fever, and cholera in a more timely manner.

So what about COVID-19?

Obviously, in terms of ethics, we have grown as a society, since no scientist in their right mind would trial a vaccination on a nonconsenting child. But I can't deny there may be some a method to the madness.

In standard clinical trials, volunteers are injected with either the vaccine or a placebo, and then their health is tracked over the course of several months or even years.

The trials depend on some of the volunteers being naturally exposed to the virus, with scientists then observing how many eventually get sick in the placebo group vs. the vaccinated group.

In this length of time, thousands more people will likely be exposed to the virus worldwide and many of them - being elderly, cancer patients, or suffering from other pre existing conditions - will die.

If young and healthy adults, who in most cases will experience nothing more than a cough and runny nose, are willing to take a risk for the greater good, then I say let them.

The ethics of intentional infecting people with a potentially deadly virus are obviously contentious, but in this case, if a human challenge trial does result in a vaccine being ready for distribution months or years sooner, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

As long as volunteers are chosen wisely, carefully monitored, and fully aware of the risks involved, they could be helping to save thousands of lives and jobs.

A whooping 36 569 people in 162 counties have already signed up to take part in a COVID-19 human challenge trials via the organisation 1 DAY Sooner, so clearly the enthusiasm is there.

As we've all heard on repeat since January, we're living in "unprecedented times", perhaps we require a more unprecedented solution.