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Britain to Deliberately Infect Volunteers With Coronavirus

FILE - A clinical research nurse prepares the COVID-19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)
FILE - A clinical research nurse prepares the COVID-19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)

Healthy volunteers will be deliberately infected with the coronavirus to try to speed up the development of a vaccine, under plans announced by the British government this week.

The trial will involve healthy volunteers ages 18 to 30.

Most coronavirus vaccine trials involve giving volunteers the potential vaccine or a placebo and then waiting until enough of them have been exposed to the virus through their everyday lives. That can take months or years.

Britain announced this week it plans to begin the so-called "human challenge" trials in May 2021 to speed up the development of vaccines.

Several young people have already volunteered, among them Danica Marcos, 22, a recent university graduate from London.

"So many people [are] struggling right now. I want this pandemic to be over," Marcos told The Associated Press. "Every day that goes on, more cases are going on, more people are dying. And if this vaccine trial could mean that this period of trauma for the whole world will be over sooner, I want to help. I want to be a part of that."

Alastair Fraser-Urqhart, 18, from Stoke-on-Trent said he wanted to contribute to a vaccine.

"Personally, I can't let this opportunity to do something, to really do something, pass me by when I'm at such low risk than other people," he said.

The British government plans to invest over $43.4 million in the challenge trial. The World Health Organization said it could be significant.

"There is a very long history of this for development of a number of vaccines that has been part of what has gone on with, say, the development of the cholera vaccines and the typhoid vaccines," said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for WHO.

Harris also expressed some concerns.

"What is critical is that if people are considering this, it must be overseen by an ethics committee, and the volunteers must have full consent, and they must select the volunteers in order to minimize their risk. Because you will be challenging people with a virus that we do not have a treatment for," Harris said.

"So, you must ensure that everybody involved understands exactly what is at stake, must be selected to minimize the risk. The volunteer and you must ensure that informed consent is rigorous, that they really do understand all the risks."

Infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the new coronavirus are rising sharply in many countries around the world. A vaccine remains the best hope of any return to some kind of normality, said Dr. Sterghios Moschos, a microbiologist at the University of Northumbria, who spoke to VOA in a recent interview.

"At this point in time, we don't have a way of stopping transmission," Moschos said. "And we don't even have the financial capacity to give multiple antibody treatments, steroids, et cetera, like Donald Trump received, to everybody in the population that needs treatment. The cost is quite large for these kinds of treatments. We don't have a vaccine. And therefore, as a result, we need to contain the spread of this virus. Not just manage it, contain it."

The initial aim of the British research team will be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a COVID-19 infection, using controlled doses of the virus. If approved by regulators and an ethics committee, it is hoped the full challenge trial could begin in May 2021.