Kenyans are among thousands from across the world who have volunteered for a daring plan to speed up the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The plan mooted by a group known as 1Day Sooner involves volunteers being injected with a trial vaccine, then deliberately infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and isolated for several weeks to await results.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), several things can happen: One may not get infected, get a mild infection, progress to severe disease or even die.
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The WHO, however, warns that there is no known effective treatment against Covid-19 for volunteers who may develop life-threatening conditions. Known in research as human challenge trials (HCT), similar experiments have been conducted in the past to speed up the development of vaccines. The only difference is that there were rescue treatments for volunteers who got sick.
Unlike HCT, the participants in normal vaccine development are inoculated and left to go on with their normal lives in the hope they might be infected. Despite the risks involved, thousands have continued to volunteer for the proposed Covid-19 HCT.
“I am a journalist... and hope participating would allow me to contribute in a small way to the sort of people I report on,” reads a post by a Kenyan volunteer on the 1Day Sooner website.
The initiative was launched in April by a group of scientists. By yesterday the campaign had recruited 31,254 people from 140 countries.
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One of those who have signed up is 71-year-old Williams Phillips, a 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics. “I have volunteered as someone willing to be a subject of such studies by registering with 1Day Sooner,” Dr Phillips wrote in the USA Today.
Phillips, however, is not likely to be selected for the trials, which are looking for young people aged between 18 to 25.
Volunteers in this age group are thought to be at lower risk of developing severe or fatal conditions of the disease.
The WHO has developed draft guidelines for a possible Covid-19 HCT that have been floated for public comment. Healthy volunteers must be made aware of the risks involved, including possible damage to vital body organs and even death. “You will stay in the in-patient isolation unit for approximately three weeks if you do not become infected, or for 5-6 weeks if you do develop infection,” reads the draft.
Isolation will be mandatory and any attempt to escape will be treated as a crime and punishable according to local laws.
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While the 1Day Sooner volunteers say they are in it for the societal good, the WHO guidelines indicate that participants will be paid. While no amount has been listed, Matthew Memoli, a US expert in conducting human challenge trials for influenza vaccines, suggests this could be well over $10,000 (Sh1 million).
When the Kenya Medical Research Institute carried out HCT for malaria, participants were paid Sh48,000 and required to isolate for three weeks. In a study published in Bioethics on July 9, the scientists suggested that in future, skilled counseling services should be provided to the volunteers. This after several participants suffered severe psychological and emotional reactions.