“Taking risks” in the name of science? 

di Priscilla Pajdo del 27 October 2020

TORONTO - For the past ten months, a day has not passed without some sort of new, record breaking Covid-19 report. This past Sunday Ontario reached a record high of 1,042 new infections.

One could surmise that a greater number of tests performed would lead to a high positivity count. Sunday’s results were based on just under 39,000 (38,769) tests processed. Even so, that is well below the 50,000 per day target the Province expected to reach by mid-October.

If “scientists” learned anything from SARS and the “first wave”, it is that the best tools to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, are test, trace, isolate and treat. Until a proven e.ective treatment or vaccine is found and widely distributed, the cases will likely continue to climb.

All over the world, Covid-19 cases are on the rise. Italy, the first country in Europe to experience the greatest impact in the early stages, has recorded over forty thousand new infections this past weekend.

A similar phenomenon is evident in the UK. Over the weekend, the country reported more than 42,000 cases. This has researchers in London turning to a controversial technique for new studies to potentially accelerate development of a vaccine – a “human challenge’ model. Normally, in standard clinical trials, volunteers are vaccinated and monitored over several months to see if they develop a disease circulating in the community.

Now, scientists propose to infect up to 90 healthy, young volunteers (aged 18-30), with the Covid-19 virus. The focus is to identify the lowest levels of the virus needed to infect healthy participants.

Studies will be conducted under strict conditions in a safe and secure facility. Individuals will be monitored around the clock to examine how the virus behaves in the body. Once this first phase is completed, researchers will study closely how vaccines work in the body to stop Covid-19. Volunteers will first receive a candidate vaccine, then be intentionally exposed to the virus.

Researchers claim these studies have the potential to speed up the development of vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. The study will be delivered through partnership between London’s Royal Free Hospital, Imperial College London and the private sector. The collaboration is made possible through government funds equivalent to approximately $57.5 million CAD.

These types of studies have been used over several decades in studying other diseases such as typhoid, cholera and influenza.

However, ethical and safety questions persist. The country’s leading healthcare regulatory and research authorities will have to give their “go ahead” prior to any research. If approved by regulators and ethics committees, studies may begin January 2021 with results expected later that year in May.

Currently, there are 44 Covid-19 vaccine candidates in various stages of clinical evaluation. According to the WHO, as of October 19, ten are in phase 3, the final stage of human trials.

With vaccine development moving quickly and results expected by the end of the year or early 2021, critics wonder whether the “human challenge” studies are worth the risk. They caution against unnecessary harm.

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