While most of the world has spent the last year desperately trying to avoid COVID-19, a group of people in the UK will soon have SARS-CoV-2 willfully squirted up their nose in the name of scientific research.
The world’s first COVID-19 “human challenge study” will begin in the next couple of weeks after receiving ethics approval in the UK. The project will see 90 healthy people aged 18 to 30 years old become exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in a safe and controlled environment to increase our understanding of how the virus affects people.
The study will be delivered by a partnership between Imperial College London, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, and the clinical company hVIVO. They will use a similar model that's previously been employed to study multiple diseases, including malaria, typhoid, norovirus, common cold, and the flu.
After being tested to show they are clear of the disease, the volunteers will go into quarantine at the Royal Free hospital in London for two days. Then, a low dose of SAR-CoV-2 will then be administered up their nose.
Participants will be monitored 24 hours a day for at least two weeks, including regular blood samples and nose swabs, by a team of doctors and researchers. This is an attempt to understand how the immune system reacts to the virus and identify factors that influence how the virus is transmitted, including how much people with the infection “shed” infectious virus particles into the surrounding environment. They might also explain which people develop symptoms and which have an asymptomatic infection. Volunteers will be followed up for a year after their participation.
According to the Guardian, participants will also be subject to cognitive tests and even smell tests using scratch and sniff cards. There are still many gaps in our knowledge about the disease, but the effect of the virus on the central nervous system is particularly concerning.
“We will start to see useful results very quickly after the commencement of the study. From the moment we inoculate someone with this virus, we will learn important information about disease progression and treatment. This crucial data feeds directly back into how to develop effective vaccines and better treatments because they identify what type of immune response needs to be triggered,” Dr Andrew Catchpole, Chief Scientific Officer at hVIVO, said in a statement.
You might wonder, what’s in it for these human guinea pigs? Well, they will be compensated with around £4,500 (~$6,266) for their time.
There are some limitations to the study, however. For example, the group of participants, people aged 18 to 30 years with no underlying conditions, are at relatively low risk of falling severely ill with COVID-19. As such, the study might not be able to tell us much about how the disease affects the most vulnerable.
Once the initial study is done and dusted, the study will go on to play a key role in further developing effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments for the disease.
“Our eventual aim is to quickly test which vaccines and treatments work best in beating this disease,” explained Dr Chris Chiu, Chief Investigator of the study from the Department of Infectious Diseases at Imperial.