Over 16,000 volunteer to be infected with the coronavirus

Scientists and engineers hard at work developing a potential vaccine in Beijing.
NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The coronavirus has infected over 4.2 million individuals and killed over a quarter million, so why are people worldwide volunteering to be infected with this deadly virus?

The answer might make sense depending on where your ethics lie.

Over the last few weeks, several scientists have been making a prominent push for what are known as “human challenge trials”, and one website is even taking signups, currently boasting 16,213 volunteers across 102 countries.

These human challenge trials are essentially giving people COVID-19 after they’re injected with the beta vaccine. The trials could be split up in 3 “phases”, with each phase progressively introducing more people to the virus until it hits the thousands.

As of now, there are no plans to conduct this kind of trial amongst humans, at least in the United States. But several prominent researchers and companies are saying that the current time expectations – around 18 to 24 months – is too long. A lot of them are saying that the vaccine needs to come and it needs to come now.

While a very select few were selected as vaccine candidates, according to the WHO, public health officials are claiming that it could take as much as 18 months for one to be deemed as a safe and effective candidate. Whether or not the risk on these individuals is worth waiting up to 18 more months is up to debate. Taking the broadened and immediate route to testing on volunteering individuals, the vaccine could be manufactured in as soon as 12 months, according to 1 Day Sooner.

Congress is even pushing the idea, as 35 members recently implored the Department of Health and Human Services as well as The Food and Drug Administration. However, the topic is obviously controversial as it imposes risks on people, yet there are claims that these risks would be mitigated by careful dosage and close observation.

The ethical problem mentioned earlier is also a huge issue. Many are debating whether or not the intentional spreading of the virus – with its unknown long-term effects – is unethical or not. The argument could go both ways, these people are volunteering to be tested on, but should scientists really use humans as lab rats?

Authors T. Hope and J. McMillan point out that historically, the morality of an action isn’t judged on the consequences, be it positive or negative, but rather on the immediate action taking place.

A famous example would be the Trolley Problem. You’re on a bridge over a rail with a very fat man, a speedy trolley is approaching. The problem: five people are tied to the rail. All seems hopeless until you realize that pushing the fat man would stop the trolley and save all five people. Although the solution couldn’t be any easier- effortlessly push a man off the bridge – many people struggle with answering this question. Morality is judged based on the immediate action. The action is pushing the man off, the positive consequence is saving five people.

In this instance, many wouldn’t push the man as they’d feel guilty, even if they’re saving five seemingly innocent people. The Coronavirus challenge trials would possibly lead to the development of a vaccine, but the immediate action of injecting innocent people with the virus is what’s stirring all the debate.

Regardless, these people are volunteering for this and agreeing to the risks, tests, and observations.

An argument in favor of these challenge trials is the fact that they have worked in the past before.

The first vaccine for smallpox was developed with this method. Physician Edward Jenner injected many young kids with the vaccine and then proceeded to expose them to the virus. This happened in the 1700’s, though. People have changed. Whether or not the general public would allow for a group of people to be injected with the virus is up in the air. Things could get a lot more complicated if someone died from the virus after being injected with a developing vaccine.

Many scientists are arguing for these trials to begin immediately, and are citing the past instances in which they’ve helped develop vaccines.

Without a doubt, the virus has taken control of most of our daily lives. The world has shifted the way it works in order to combat the virus. People are getting sick of it, protests are happening, and social media is going insane with how bored everyone is. Seeing how this turns out is going to be interesting. It’s not only going to be a sign of how much medical science has developed, but a test of morality and risk management as well.

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