As a nation we’re at a strange point in our relationship with Coronavirus. At the start of the year Covid-19 was just something that was affecting people elsewhere, mostly in China and in Italy. Then the odd case started springing up in the UK. Then, suddenly, it got worse. A lot worse.
As of September, the UK has suffered almost 42,000 deaths at the hands of the disease. It’s also wreaked significant economic destruction and had an immeasurable impact on the nation’s mental health.
And, despite the summer lull, most experts think a second spike in winter (the traditional flu season) is more than likely. With new lockdown measures due to come into place, finalising a vaccine for Covid-19 remains a vital undertaking, especially so considering recent setbacks in the Oxford University vaccine trials, where a volunteer fell ill in what the New York Times reported is a case of transverse myelitis, an inflammatory issue often caused by viral infections.
The Oxford vaccine isn’t the only one in development, however. With companies vying to ready their vaccines first, we asked those involved what actually goes in to vaccine trials of this magnitude? How do you go about applying? And, crucially, what are the actual risks?
Alistair's and Robert's Story
Despite setbacks, a number of other trials are already underway. Alastair Fraser-Urquhart, 18, has volunteered to take part through 1Day Sooner, an organisation that advocates on behalf of COVID-19 challenge trial volunteers. He plans to go to UCL to study cancer biomedicine next year, but has deferred this year to work with 1 Day Sooner.
“Challenge trials have the potential to save thousands of lives and reduce the suffering and misery of millions,” he says. “The reason I'm volunteering is that I believe [the trials] have the potential to test many vaccines very quickly, which will be key in ending the pandemic,” he continues.
“It's important not to look at challenge trials in isolation; if the infection of a small number of carefully selected people at low risk of the virus prevents a huge amount of infection in the community, then it's clear that running a challenge trial is hugely ethically justified and something that I'm totally willing to volunteer for.”
Not that the challenge trials are risk-free.
“There are significant risks to participating in a challenge trial,” Alastair explains. “It's likely that I'd become ill with coronavirus, which obviously carries risk of death. However, given that I'm young and healthy, the risk of death to me is far lower than that of a live kidney donation, for example. The risks of long-term consequences can't be ruled out, but again, young and healthy people seem to be at lower risk of them. And if coronavirus turns out to have undiscovered and very severe long-term consequences, better that I take that risk given that I'm a consenting volunteer, rather than people in the community who may deal with it far less well than me. It's also important to note that the more severe the potential long-term risks, the greater the benefits that a challenge trial will be.”
Robert is 19 and lives in London. He has been taking part in a trial testing a potential new vaccine supported by the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) since June. Like Alastair, he had decided to put the greater good ahead of his own wellbeing.
“I wanted to sign up for the trial to do my part… as I have no scientific training it is the easiest way for me to contribute,” he says. “I wasn't nervous about taking part. I knew the hospital staff would take every measure to ensure I, and they, were as safe as possible. In fact, I felt safer in the hospital than I do sitting in a socially distanced pub.”
Robert started his trial on the 29th of June, beginning with a health check-up. He received his first vaccine four weeks later and has been returning almost every week for check-ups, and was recently given his second vaccine booster.
“All the check-ups are much the same, taking blood and asking questions. It has been a very easy experience as all the staff have been lovely in treating me and talking to me.”
So far, he says, the experience has been good.
“It has been a very easy experience and has given me a positive image of vaccine trials, and medical trials in general; I will definitely be taking part in others in the future.”
How Do I Apply?
The easiest way to apply to test the Covid-19 vaccine is through the NHS Covid19 Vaccines Registry. There are currently over 229,000 people signed up to the service, but, Bingham explains, there’s still a real need for volunteers from the groups most likely to be affected by a Covid-19 vaccine: “the over 65s, adults with underlying health disorders and people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities.”
With a greater sample size hopefully equating to faster results and quicker development of a widely available vaccine, now could be the time to do your bit.
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