Among them is Estefania Hidalgo, 32, a photography student in Bristol, England, who works at a gas station to pay bills.
“I do night shifts there, and I can feel very lonely,” she recalls on a sunny day near her home. After those long closing hours with podcasts only to keep her company, she describes discovering the challenge-testing movement – and hearing the volunteers’ motivations – as an inspiring moment.
She said, “I was shook.” “Nobody should be left behind. The elderly, the poor, the people of color. Everyone just deserves to be healthy.”
“This was a way for me to take back control of the situation, feel that I was in a less hopeless place, a world less hopeless, and be like, well, I can do it. And to make it better, I chose not to be afraid.
So-called human challenge trials, although sometimes controversial, are nothing new. They have been used for cholera, typhoid, malaria, and even the common cold. But unlike those diseases, we do not yet have a fully effective treatment for Covid-19, should an experimental vaccine fail.
Experts say that volunteers for Challenge Trials are usually compensated for their time and participation, but organizers must be careful not to pay an amount that could be forced.
Critics also say that the challenge trials have limited benefit because the healthy young people involved are not representative of the general population.
However, as of last month, the UK government said it was in active talks to collaborate on such a trial, which would be the first in the world for the coronavirus.
Indeed, several of the major vaccine developers – among them AstraZeneca, Sanofi and BioNTech – have said they are not interested in participating. There are eleven candidate vaccines in Phase 3 trials, in which tens of thousands of people are given a candidate vaccine, are released to lead their daily lives, and then are monitored to see if they have Covid-19.
“It is not clear that the first vaccines to be evaluated will necessarily be the best vaccines,” said Peter Smith of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “I think there is a very strong case for exploring challenge trials to assess vaccines for the large number of potential Covid vaccines in development.”
The Challenge Trials discussions have advanced so that the UK Health Research Authority (HRA), which must approve any research involving people, has a committee in place to assess the medical ethics behind any potential proposals.
“There is very little research that does not carry risks,” said Terence Stevenson, President of HRA. “Every day in this country and in every country, health care workers voluntarily put themselves at risk to take care of others.
“People who, in their opinion, might be willing to do so for the benefit of the wider community – I personally don’t find that surprising.”
Only 18-year-old Aleister Fraser-Urquhart agrees that his decision to volunteer was unremarkable.
“It was just an immediate and logical idea,” he said. “The risk to me is small. But by taking this small risk to myself, I can protect thousands of other people from getting injured without my consent.”
Fraser-Urquhart was so attracted to the idea, in June, that he joined the 1 Day Sooner and is now leading a campaign for the British government to facilitate the first trial of the Coronavirus Challenge. He postponed the start of the university for a year to work on the project.
If everything goes as planned, and passes the screening, he hopes to log into a biocontainment facility, take a candidate vaccine, and stay in a room for several weeks.
Under normal phase 3 trials, there is always a placebo group – some people who do not receive a vaccine – to have a baseline of infection. But there is a big difference between being exposed to the infection in daily life and being exposed to it intentionally, albeit in a medical setting.
There is some disagreement over whether the coronavirus trial will need a placebo treatment. Stevenson suggested that it wouldn’t be the case, but Smith isn’t sure.
Basically, Smith said, the “problem” is that if you give a group of volunteers a vaccine, and then challenge them and none of them get sick, it is because the vaccine was preventive, or because there was something wrong with the way that you challenged them so that they did not get infected? You cannot answer this question definitively unless you have a control group. “
Not surprisingly, Fraser-Urquhart’s enthusiastic participation gave his father a pause for a moment.
Andrew Fraser-Urquhart, 52, said, “He’s clearly not on the top of your son’s list of things you want from your son. The first thing I thought was that, at least, I now know what he was doing in his room for the last time. Three weeks on his computer, He said with a chuckle.
They talked about what was going to happen, and despite a “swollen throat” he realized there was no stopping Alister, who talks about the intricacies of challenging experiment science in a way that belies his teenage years.
Andrew said: “It is at the forefront of science and technology.” “It’s something others benefit from. It’s a rather brave thing. It’s something a little different. That is in short. So when you put it in these terms, no, it’s a surprise at all.”
He is, quite simply, undoubtedly proud of his son.
The risk, of course, is small, but not zero. Less than 1% of deaths from Covid-19 in the United States were among those 34 years of age or younger. But the long-term health consequences of contracting the virus are still poorly understood.
For Alastair, that’s all the more reason to run the challenge trial, hasten the end of the pandemic, and help more people in the general public avoid facing those long-term consequences.
“If it is time to push boundaries and discover how quickly we can do things, how much we can do things, and take risks for the sake of others, now is the time.”