The aim of the study was to identify the lowest amount of virus to safely and reliably infect someone, so researchers can later easily test the efficacy of vaccines or antivirals on future challenge trial volunteers. “Of course, in doing that, you learn a lot about the actual disease, which indeed we have,” said Dr. Andrew Catchpole, chief scientific officer at hVIVO, a British clinical and laboratory services company that partnered with Imperial College London to conduct Britain’s Covid-19 challenge study.
The volunteers were infected with the original SARS-CoV-2 strain first discovered in Wuhan, China. A Delta strain is being developed to be used in possible later challenge trials. “Coronaviruses are not going away and there is going to be continual risk of new highly pathogenic coronaviruses coming along,” said Dr. Chiu. “We need to understand those immune factors much better so we are better prepared for the next pandemic when it comes.”
Dr. Fauci’s office said the institute has no plans to fund Covid-19 human challenge trials in the future. Many bioethicists support that decision. “We don’t ask people to sacrifice themselves for the good of society,” said Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. “In the U.S., we are very much about protecting individual rights and individual life and health and liberty, while in more communal societies it’s about the greater good.”
But Josh Morrison, a co-founder of 1Day Sooner, which advocates on behalf of more than 40,000 would-be human challenge volunteers, argues it should be his and other people’s right to take risks for the greater good. “Most people aren’t going to want to be in a Covid challenge study, and that’s totally fine, but they shouldn’t project their own choices on other people,” he said.
Not that human challenge trial participants aren’t compensated for their trouble — around $6,000 for the Covid-19 challenge volunteers and a free holiday in the country, including lodging, meals and incidental expenses, for those who took part in studies at the Common Cold Unit (which closed in 1990 when its funding was pulled for AIDS research).
But judging from archival and recent interviews with challenge trial participants, the real driver was, and still is, a desire to be of service. The prospect of helping humanity made volunteers feel good, they said, and gave them a sense of agency — whether in the dreary aftermath of World War II or now in the uncertain days of a pandemic.
As one participant in Britain’s Covid human challenge trial put it: “You know the phrase ‘one interesting fact about yourself’ that strikes terror into everyone? That’s now solved forever. I did something that made a difference.”
Kate Murphy is the author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.