Over 3,000 Healthy People Volunteer to be Exposed to Coronavirus to Give Vaccine Testing a 'Head Start'

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Posted: Apr 29, 2020 1:15 PM
Over 3,000 Healthy People Volunteer to be Exposed to Coronavirus to Give Vaccine Testing a 'Head Start'

Source: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The Wuhan coronavirus pandemic’s effects have been felt. The world economy has ground to a halt, 26 million Americans are unemployed, and the economy contracted by nearly 5 percent in the first quarter of 2020. Stay-at-home orders were issued to curb the spread and prevent hospitals from being overrun. The good news is that the curve has flattened, even in New York City, ground zero for the US-based outbreak. For most of the country, they can start looking to roadmaps to re-opening, which should occur as soon and as safely as possible. There will be setbacks, however, since we still don’t have a vaccine. In all, mass sporting events and concerts probably won’t be permitted until the Fall of 2021. We need that vaccine, which takes time, but 3,300 people from 52 nations are volunteering to be exposed to the virus in order to give vaccine testing a “head start” (via Mercury News):

The effort was launched by Josh Morrison of Brooklyn, New York, a Harvard-educated attorney who founded Waitlist Zero, a nonprofit organization that seeks to ease kidney donation. In 2011, he donated a kidney to a stranger, accepting a small risk of death to save a life. A readily available COVID-19 vaccine, he reasoned, could save far more lives.

Traditionally, a vaccine is proven effective after comparison of cases in hundreds or thousands of individuals who randomly receive vaccine or placebo. That process takes a long time, because it must wait for natural infection.

The premise of a “human challenge” study is to infect a smaller number of vaccinated people who are young and healthy, accelerating testing and giving manufacturing a head start. A “challenge” study takes advantage of the low death rate for those infected by SARS-CoV-2 — about 0.03% for 20-29 year olds and 0.085% for 30-39 year olds according to data from China — not negligible but very uncommon for those likely to be eligible to participate.

Such studies put volunteers at potential risk of disease and death. There is no “rescue” therapy to treat them if they get sick. The long-term effects are unknown.  Yet they’re willing to help anyway.

As the saying goes, “not all heroes wear capes.” In the meantime, we have antibody testing has slowly been showing that scores of people have had the virus and recovered. Regarding therapeutics, Gilead Sciences Inc’s anti-viral trials have proven successful. We’re not out of the woods, but it looks as if the worst is behind us. 

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