WHO suggests controversial 'challenge study' needed to help speed up search for coronavirus vaccine

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The World Health Organization has suggested that deliberately infecting healthy volunteers with coronavirus may help speed up the search for a potential vaccine.

In a report released Wednesday, the WHO, who have been under pressure for their initial response to the outbreak in China and subsequent global pandemic, suggested that so-called “challenge studies” can “be substantially faster to conduct than vaccine field trials.”

“Well designed challenge studies might thus not only accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development, but also make it more likely that the vaccines ultimately deployed are more effective,” the report’s preamble suggests.

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The report acknowledges that such studies are “ethically sensitive”, but says they have a long history which have helped accelerate the development of vaccines against typhoid and cholera.

It lays out eight conditions that would need to be met for such a study, including scientific justification and potential benefits and suggests those in the 18-30 age bracket might be best suited for such a study.

Under the potential benefits, it argues it could lead to more lives saved as well as an “earlier return to normal global social function and associated and public health benefits.”

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But under drawbacks, it concedes it could lead to an erosion of trust in challenge studies, research or vaccines as a whole.

Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Moderna Inc., where a vaccine for COVID-19 is in development, told Bloomberg, who first reported on the study, he was unsure a challenge study would speed up development.

“I’m not sure I am a huge fan of it really for both practical and ethical reasons,” Zaks said. “As is often the case, the devil is in the details.”

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Earlier this week, Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech announced the first doses of a vaccine have been injected into human patients.

The first dosing of the BNT162 vaccine program began in Germany last week, according to a company statement. The trial phase aims to enroll up to 360 patients, ages 18 to 55. Once the younger group produces sound evidence of safety and immunogenicity, testing in older adults, or those between the ages of 65 and 85, will begin.

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There are 102 potential COVID-19 vaccines in development as of April 30, according to the World Health Organization. Eight of the contenders have been approved for clinical trials.

At a Fox News virtual town hall on Sunday, President Trump predicted that a coronavirus vaccine could be available by December.

"I think we'll have a vaccine by the end of the year," Trump told the moderators, Fox News' Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, saying he was "very confident" in the assessment. "We'll have a vaccine much sooner rather than later."

As of Thursday 6 a.m. EST, there have been more than 3.7 million coronavirus cases across the world, with more than 264,000 deaths. The U.S. has had the most cases, with 1.2 million, and deaths at more than 73,000.