As the world moves towards finding a vaccine for COVID-19, it has become increasingly important to find methods to quickly and effectively test new vaccines. Testing vaccines is often a very long process, taking multiple years. However, due to the nature of the worldwide pandemic, many are suggesting the use of Controlled Human Infection (CHI) as a testing method to speed up vaccine development. This method involves deliberately exposing a group of volunteers to COVID-19 in an effort to understand the efficacy of a vaccine. While proponents of CHI believe it is essential to this type of vaccine development, considering the magnitude of the pandemic, others point to the ethicality of such a study.
Proponents of CHI argue that while a group of individuals’ lives may be put at a great risk by deliberately infecting them with the virus, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved as a result. Coronavirus is a very large worldwide pandemic affecting millions of people. Furthermore, as a result of the pandemic, the health crisis has also caused a financial crisis affecting even more people. The quicker the pandemic is controlled by finding an effective and safe vaccine, the more lives that will be saved and the less people will continue to be affected. Those in favor of CHI argue that the quickest way to a safe and effective vaccine is through CHI. While the lives of some may be put at danger, it is justified due to the magnitude of the pandemic and the many lives that could be saved as a result.
Since the outburst of COVID-19, CHI has picked up momentum. Recently, 35 members of the House of Representatives wrote to the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services to argue that CHI should be used as a method for vaccine testing. However, it is not likely to get approved. CHI was not approved for use with the Zika outbreak, as it would’ve been a major threat to those individuals infected. As COVID-19 is a deadlier than Zika, it is very unlikely that the FDA would approve Controlled Human Infection of this disease, even if it means that it could speed up vaccine testing and release.
Those in favor of Controlled Human Infection also argue that the study is highly regulated. Typically, volunteers picked are young and healthy adults with no history of underlying conditions. Additionally, these volunteers will have access to the best health care available in the case that they do experience severe symptoms.
However, a major ethical challenge is proposed by the deliberate infection of individuals with COVID-19, especially as so little is currently known about it. For example, the intensity of symptoms has shown to vary greatly among individuals, some being asymptomatic and others suffering greatly. The cause of this is still very much unknown. Therefore, it can be considered unethical to infect individuals with a virus without really knowing how they will respond, as an individual can potentially be put at a very high risk of death without realizing it. Even those that are healthy and have no underlying health conditions have been shown to severely suffer from COVID-19 and die.
While Controlled Human Infection has recently gained great momentum in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, its use has raised many questions among scientists, politicians, and the general public. With such little known about the virus, is it fair to infect individuals with COVID-19? Furthermore, is it ethical to sacrifice some lives if it could save many?