UK researchers are preparing to begin an experiment that will involve infecting healthy volunteers with Covid-19 to study the disease in the hope of speeding up the development of a vaccine.
Proponents of the approach, known as a challenge study, say it may produce results faster than standard research, which requires waiting to see whether volunteers who have been given an experimental treatment get sick. The government is preparing to invest £33.6 million ($43.4m) in the study.
Imperial College London said on Tuesday that the study, involving healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 30, would be conducted in partnership with the Department for Business, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and hVivo, a company with experience conducting testing.
“Deliberately infecting volunteers with a known human pathogen is never undertaken lightly,” said Peter Openshaw, co-investigator on the study.
“However, such studies are enormously informative about a disease, even one so well studied as Covid-19."
The group of up to 90 participants will be exposed to the virus in a controlled environment.
They will be carefully monitored to establish the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause Covid-19 but not serious illness.
Dr Chris Chiu, an expert in infectious diseases at Imperial College London and lead researcher on the human challenge studies, said that while "no study is completely risk free" the team would be working hard to ensure to ensure they are as low as possible.
The head of the UK's vaccine task force, Kate Bingham, said the research would improve understanding of the virus and help officials make decisions about research.
"There is much we can learn in terms of immunity, the length of vaccine protection and reinfection," she said.
It is hoped the trials will start in January, with results expected by May, pending approval from regulatory bodies and ethics committees.
The aim of the research will initially be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause Covid-19 in small groups of healthy young people, who are at the lowest risk of harm. The next phase will be to test vaccines.
The studies will be carried out under strict conditions at the Royal Free Hospital in London and the carefully selected volunteers will be compensated for their involvement.
After the initial study, the volunteers will be tracked for a year.
“We are doing everything we can to fight coronavirus, including backing our best and brightest scientists and researchers in their hunt for a safe and effective vaccine," UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma said.
“The funding announced today for these ground-breaking but carefully controlled studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines which will ultimately help in beginning our return to normal life.”
As part of a partnership with hVivi, world-famous Great Ormond Street Hospital will manufacture a batch of the Covid-19 virus in its new facilities in the Zayed Centre for Research into Rare Disease in Children.
Mat Shaw, chief executive of Great Ormond Street Hospital, said: “Never has research been more important than now. [Our] commitment to research coupled with the world-class facilities in our Zayed Centre for Research mean that we can play our part in this important study.”
The Zayed Centre for Research opened to patients in October 2019. It was made possible through a £60 million donation from Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, wife of the UAE's founding president, Sheikh Zayed.