Thousands volunteer to be exposed to virus in pandemic vaccine test

(CNN) – After donating a kidney last summer, Abie Rohrig is ready to be a medical volunteer again.

Volunteers would be used as guinea pigs in a vaccine trial designed to infect volunteers with coronavirus. (Source: Abie Rohrig, John Gentle, Emory University, Vanderbilt University Hospital, CNN)

This time he would be a guinea pig in a vaccine trial designed to infect volunteers with coronavirus.

"Just like the nurses and the doctors on the front line, I'm willing to take some risk myself,” Rohrig said. “That means that we can move through this as a nation and as a world."

He's 20 years old, lives in New York and has seen what the pandemic can do.

Knowing that, he signed up online to be a volunteer in a potential COVID-19 “human challenge vaccine” trial.

Unlike other vaccine trials, in a challenge trial, a group of volunteers would first be injected with a potential vaccine. A second control group would be injected with a placebo.

After allowing enough time for the volunteers who got the vaccine to hopefully build immunities, it's all challenged.

All the volunteers, those with and those without the trial vaccine, are intentionally contaminated with coronavirus.

It’s risky and even potentially deadly. Still, it also might be a quicker path to an actual vaccine for the rest of us.

By design, some people in the trial will get sick, according to Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"The intention is to make some people at least infected," he said.

His notion of using a challenge vaccine for COVID-19 is gaining interest from the World Health Organization. Other scientists are on board, too.

"This could save months off the off the time required to evaluate a vaccine,” Lipsitch said. “The goal is to do the fastest responsible and scientifically valid way of evaluating the vaccine."

Multiple vaccines could be tried at the same time with controls put in place for proper medical care for all volunteers.

And by selecting only young, healthy adults, the chances of someone dying are extremely low, according to Lipsitch. “But it is not zero and that’s why this is an altruistic act to volunteer for this.”

It's not just the risk, it’s the unknown risk, experts warn.

Robert Read at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom is in favor of the idea but insists full disclosure would be necessary.

"This case is different. We're not able to quantify the risk to the volunteer,” Read said. “We will have to say to them that we cannot say exactly what is going to happen to them."

It’s reason for pause for a volunteer like Rohrig.

“I don’t want to be naive, or arrogant,” he said. “And I don’t want to hide myself from the fact that there is a serious, not at all trivial risk to me doing this."

But despite the risk, 16,000 people from more than 100 countries have already signed an online form saying they are interested in becoming volunteers.

One of them is John Gentle, a U.S. Army veteran, businessman, husband and father of four from Alabama.

"I am putting more people directly related to me at a greater risk if something were to go wrong,” he said. “But I feel like the risk is low."

So far, the challenge vaccine trial is hypothetical. It may or may not happen.

Still, Gentle, Rohrig and thousands of others say they’re ready, if needed, to take the risk if it means they can be part of helping to end the pandemic.

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