UK gears up for 'challenge trial' of COVID-19 vaccine

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus

The UK could be the first country to carry out a COVID-19 “challenge trial” where healthy volunteers are deliberately infected with coronavirus to test vaccines, according to press reports.

First reported by the Financial Times, the stories suggest that the first such studies would be of help in London, as the country desperately searches for a solution to soaring infection rates.

The country’s beleaguered testing system reported more than 6,000 new cases on Wednesday alone.

According to the BBC, the government said it is holding discussions about “human challenge studies”, although no contracts have yet been signed.

A spokesman for the government said: "We are working with partners to understand how we might collaborate on the potential development of a COVID-19 vaccine through human challenge studies.

"These discussions are part of our work to research ways of treating, limiting and hopefully preventing the virus so we can end the pandemic sooner."

A vaccine is seen as a way out of the social distancing and lockdown regulations that are crippling large parts of the economy and causing immense disruption to peoples’ lives.

The UK is already leading research into potential therapies and vaccines for the virus – unfortunately as one of the worst-hit countries there have been enough patients available to run large-scale national clinical trials.

At the same time the UK’s single taxpayer-funded health service has allowed for joined-up national research as hospitals and clinics have been able to collaborate easily and share information and insights.

While the reports do not suggest which vaccine will be involved, there were calls over the summer for a challenge trial of the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

That vaccine is top of the World Health Organization’s list of vaccines in clinical development, which shows there are 38 potential shots in human trials.

Although controversial, as the subjects would be exposed to a potentially lethal virus, the trial could provide data about the immune response for any vaccine.

The UK challenge trial will reportedly take place in a secure facility in Whitechapel, East London, and 2,000 potential volunteers have already signed up.

Any trial would have to be approved by the UK Medicines and Health products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) drugs regulator, as well as meeting the country's clinical ethics standards.

Feature image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Laboratories/NIH