UK may start vaccine tests in which volunteers are infected with coronavirus

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Doctor receives vaccine dose for Covid-19 in Tver, Russia. (REUTERS / Tatyana Makeyeva)

LONDON (Reuters) – Human challenge tests of possible vaccines against Covid-19, in which volunteers are deliberately infected with the disease, could become a reality now that a British biotech company said it is in advanced negotiations with the government to create and provide strains of the virus.

Preliminary work on the tests, which aim to accelerate the process that determines the effectiveness of a vaccine candidate, is being carried out by hVIVO, a unit of the pharmaceutical services group Open Orphan, the company said.

“We are talking to several parties, including the UK government, about a Covid-19 challenge test, and as soon as one of these contracts is signed, we will make an announcement,” said Open Orphan Chief Executive Cathal Friel.

An agreement would involve creating a human challenge study model that could be used if such tests obtain ethical and safety approval from regulatory agencies.

The British government’s business, energy and industrial strategy department was not immediately available for comment.

Supporters of human challenge tests say they are a good way to shorten the often lengthy process of testing potential vaccines on tens of thousands of volunteers in the real world who lead normal lives and are monitored for whether they have contracted the disease or are protected from it.

In these strict control tests, volunteers receive a vaccine and, about a month later, are purposely infected with the disease under controlled conditions. Then they are isolated in a quarantine facility and monitored to find out if they get sick or if the vaccine immunized them.

Critics say that deliberately infecting a person with a potentially fatal disease for which effective treatment does not yet exist is unethical.

Last month, leading vaccine developers AstraZeneca, Sanofi, BioNTech, Moderna and Inovio said their respective vaccine candidates are not involved in the program.

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