BOSTON — With a coronavirus vaccine still far from production, scientists and researchers are gathering an army of volunteers in hopes of shortening the wait.
The organization 1Day Sooner has already amassed 25,000 volunteers and counting. The volunteers agree to be part of a “human challenge trial” when a vaccine is ready for trials. The volunteers would deliberately contract COVID-19 to see if the vaccine protects them.
“With a challenge trial, you’re deliberately exposing people to infection in a biocontainment facility and isolated medical facility. So maybe you can do this with 100 people over the course of a few months, rather than 5000 people over the course of half a year,” said 1Day Sooner co-founder Josh Morrison.
The organization believes with each day shaved off of the vaccine timeline, thousands of lives can be saved.
MIT graduate student Ellie Immerman is one of the group’s volunteers.
“Being young and healthy, I'd much prefer that I get the virus then that someone else does, and that we develop a vaccine much faster,” Immerman said.
Challenge trials are controversial in medical circles, because the potential to cause serious illness goes against the principle of "do no harm".
NYU Medical Ethics Director Dr. Arthur Caplan says it's a big sacrifice to ask of volunteers, but he believes, it could work more quickly than typical vaccine trials. “Much, much faster than if we wait for the traditional way to study vaccines and get them approved. The fastest one I've ever seen is six years,” Dr. Caplan said.
Both Immerman and Morrison say the risk is something they're willing to take right now.
“The first thing, is that only people who are young and in good health would be able to participate. And they would be given the best medical care and be under kind of constant medical observation. And so it's certainly a significant risk. No one is downplaying that, but it's a risk that based on our current evidence, and you know, our knowledge about the diseases growing, but based on our current evidence, I would say it's roughly on par with pregnancy, or kidney donation, so things that are certainly real risks, but that we commonly allow people to do,” Morrison said.
“My main motivation is helping us move from this state of pandemic to one of recovery,” Immerman said.
A potential challenge trial still has several hurdles to clear before it's a reality. It would need to be run by an institutional review board, such as a university or the National Institute of Health. If those groups give the green light ethically, a vaccine developer would need to get on board.
1Day Sooner is talking to vaccine makers, including Moderna in Cambridge. Morrison admits, Moderna has ethical concerns right now, but told him they would have a hard time saying no, if the N.I.H. got behind the project. He said his organization will forge ahead.
“Given the enormous potential reward, I’d rather be doing something constructive and doing my part, then kind of feeling passive and just trying to kind of wait and hope things are better,” Morrison said.
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