Would you risk deliberate COVID-19 exposure for a faster vaccine?
NEW BRUNSWICK — You have heard the refrain over and over again, that a workable vaccine against COVID-19 is anywhere from 12 to 18 months away, or even longer. But what if there was a way, even if it carried increased risk to some, to accelerate the vaccine development process?
Dr. Nir Eyal, director of the Center for Population-Level Bioethics at Rutgers University, is one of the co-authors of a paper recently published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, in which he and his colleagues advocate for something called a "human challenge study."
The concept, which Eyal acknowledged is not without controversy, is to grow the novel coronavirus in a lab and artificially expose a certain quantity of people to it, with the hopes of then vaccinating them. Those people would ideally be young, healthy, and without underlying conditions, but who also live in areas where the virus is already concentrated.
"We are discussing the ethics of doing that, and we argue that there is actually a surprising justification, ethically, for doing that," Eyal said.
The justification is that by selecting people in locations where the coronavirus is already prevalent, their participation in a scientific trial would automatically allow them access to the best medical care, should they develop severe symptoms. If they were to chance being exposed to the virus naturally, they might be subject to the hospital and resource overload currently straining the state.
"If they don't participate in the trial, these people are likely to be infected anyhow because this is what the numbers tell us," Eyal said. "It's going to be, unfortunately, the reality throughout the world."
An inherent problem with the usual process of an efficacy trial, according to Eyal, is simply that it takes too long and that many participants self-isolate. That means even if they are trying out a vaccine, they'll never be exposed to the virus it is designed to combat, belying the vaccine's potential effectiveness and requiring that more people be tried.
"A vaccine, if we could have it quicker, would really be our exit strategy from the bind we are currently in, so it's very important to find the vaccine as fast as possible," Eyal said.
Eyal and his co-authors are not denying the very real and demonstrable fact that younger, otherwise healthy adults can and have died from COVID-19. But he said New Jersey and the rest of the country, and world, have asked medical professionals to put their own health in jeopardy to help the sick, and hopes civilians might be willing to do the same to accelerate a tangible solution.
"We want to start now so that these challenge trials, if and when we decide to go ahead with them, could start immediately and not wait for these necessary, preliminary steps," he said.