London: Around 90 volunteers will be recruited to be exposed to small amounts of the Coronavirus in a controlled setting for the first stage of "human challenge" trials to try and speed up the hunt for a viable COVID-19 vaccine, the UK government said on Tuesday.
It comes with a 33.6 million pound investment for experts from the National Health Service, academia and the private sector to join forces to make the UK among the first countries in the world to explore and establish human challenge trials to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
If approved by regulators and the ethics committee, the studies would start in January next year with results expected by May 2021.
"We are doing everything we can to fight coronavirus, including backing our best and brightest scientists and researchers in their hunt for a safe and effective vaccine," said UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma.
"The funding announced for these ground-breaking but carefully controlled studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines which will ultimately help in beginning our return to normal life," he said.
In human challenge studies, a vaccine candidate, which has proven to be safe in initial trials, is given to a small number of carefully selected healthy adult volunteers, who are then exposed to the virus in a safe and controlled environment. Medics and scientists then closely monitor the effect on volunteers 24 hours per day to see exactly how the vaccine works and to identify any side effects.
Using controlled doses of virus, the aim of the research team will initially be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause COVID-19 infection in small groups of healthy young people, aged between 18 and 30, who are at the lowest risk of harm.
Up to 90 volunteers, who will be compensated for the time they spend in the study, could be involved at this stage, the UK government said without revealing the payment involved for the volunteers.
The studies are conducted under strict conditions - these include a controlled entrance to the facility, careful decontamination of waste and a dedicated laboratory for carrying out tests, all of which help to ensure the study is delivered safely and securely. All the air leaving the unit is also cleaned so there is no risk to anyone outside the unit.
The study will take place in "world-class clinical facilities" at the Royal Free Hospital, specifically designed to contain the virus. Highly trained medics and scientists will be on hand to carefully examine how the virus behaves in the body and to ensure volunteer safety. Volunteers will be monitored for up to a year after participating in the study to ensure their long-term well-being.