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COVID-19: Volunteers to be exposed to virus in world-first study in UK

Written by on 18 February 2021

The UK is to host a world-first study in which volunteers will be deliberately exposed to coronavirus to work out the smallest amount needed to cause infection.

Starting in the next few weeks, healthy people aged between 18 and 30 will be exposed to COVID-19 in a safe and controlled environment.

The human challenge trial will be based on the version of the virus that has been circulating in the UK since March 2020, which has been shown to be of low risk in young healthy adults.

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Approved by the UK’s clinical trials ethics body, the scheme will give doctors a greater understanding of COVID-19 and help support the pandemic response by assisting in the development of vaccines and treatments.

Participants will receive the virus as drops in the nose and have to quarantine for more than two weeks at the Royal Free Hospital in London while they are monitored.

Medics and scientists will closely monitor its effect on volunteers and will be on hand to look after them 24 hours a day.

The study is being run by the government’s Vaccines Taskforce, Imperial College London, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and clinical company hVIVO, which has pioneered viral human challenge models.

A coronavirus test is handed out of a car window in the car park in Hampshire Image: A coronavirus test is handed out of a car window in the car park in Hampshire

It is backed by more than £33 million of public money and the Royal Free and the North Central London Adult Critical Care Network will make sure the NHS’s ability to care for patients during the pandemic is not affected.

The programme will not begin without their go-ahead, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has said.

Interim chairman of the Vaccines Taskforce, Clive Dix, said: “We expect these studies to offer unique insights into how the virus works and help us understand which promising vaccines offer the best chance of preventing the infection.”

After the initial study has taken place, vaccine candidates proven to be safe in clinical trials could be given to small numbers of volunteers who are then exposed to coronavirus.

This will help identify the most effective vaccines and accelerate their development.

The virus being used in the characterisation study has been produced by a team at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust, working with hVIVO with support from virologists at Imperial College London.

People can express an interest in taking part in this research at ukcovidchallenge.com

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