Come on, sing it with me: welcome to the Hotel Influenza!
You’re right, it doesn’t have the same ring as the original. It is, however, the name of a genuine hotel. Part of a clinical research unit by Saint Louis University, it aims to keep people comfortable for 24 hours a day while making sure they don’t escape as scientific experiments are carried out on them.
Let me clarify: This hotel is part of the university’s Center for Vaccine Development. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the researchers here will undertake human challenge studies – they'll give the willing guests experimental vaccines for influenza, before deliberately infecting them with one or more strains of it to see if they get sick.
Normally, flu studies involve vaccinating people and seeing if they produce flu-fighting antibodies. Human challenge studies are harder to get set up, but if possible, they are cheaper and provide far more valuable data.
The thoroughly sealed-off Hotel Influenza – technically known as the Extended Stay Research Unit – can accommodate roughly 24 volunteers. Apart from a catered canteen and a gym, it also contains “hotel-style rooms that are equipped with private bathrooms, TV and internet.”
It’s a comfy sounding way to be quarantined as the symptoms of the flu, or perhaps respiratory syncytial viral infection, inevitably begin to manifest themselves. If you’re interested in a stay, and you don’t mind getting sick for medical science, you’ll receive roughly $3,500 for both your time and travel.
This is, of course, very important stuff. The greatest single killer epidemic in human history was the 1918 flu outbreak, which ended the lives of as many as 100 million people, roughly 5 percent of the global population at the time.
Something similar could happen again with another influenza strain down the line. Even today, it can kill as many as 56,000 people per year in the US alone.
It's worth remembering that influenza comes in several different strains, each with their own idiosyncrasies. The World Health Organization (WHO) has to predict which strain will be most prevalent each year and build a vaccine around that. If the virus has changed somewhat, or the most widespread strain turns out to be different, then the vaccine won’t be as effective as we’d like.
The annual flu jab is always worth getting, by the way, but it’s manufactured based on best-guesses. Efforts are currently underway to develop a universal flu jab that protects you from all known influenza strains.
While it doesn’t currently exist, some promising experiments on mice show that progress is being made. The Hotel Influenza, then, is where such treatments will be tested for their safety and efficacy.
Paid clinical trials are, by the way, not rare things. You can find them all over the place, and they’re used to research a wide range of medical ailments or advancements. GSK, for example, are currently running a suite of trials, looking at everything from asthma to treatments for HIV.
While being paid for the benefits of medical science – presuming you get past the initial health screening at the start, that is – you can rest in their very own volunteer lounge at their Clinical Research Unit in Cambridge. GSK also explain that such trails are apparently good chances to meet new people, which could make for some very weird first date stories.
The salient point is that what Saint Louis University is doing isn’t particularly unusual – but their hotel game certainly seems to be strong, we’ll give them that. More importantly, though, it’s indubitably vital research that all goes toward our long-term survival.