The UK government will fund a £30 million vaccine study that would see healthy volunteers deliberately infected with coronavirus after being given a potential vaccine.
The trials have the potential to yield results more quickly than conventional vaccine field trials in which researchers must wait for participants to get infected in the real world.
Human challenge trials aim to speed up the development of vaccines and have previously been used in finding treatments for malaria, typhoid, cholera and flu.
Some scientists have reservations about exposing volunteers to a virusthat has no cure, although there are some treatments that have been shown to help, such as the antiviral remdesivir.
If approved, healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 would be given a potential vaccine that has proven to be safe in initial trials.
The government has said it will invest £33.6m to back the studies in partnership with Imperial College London, hVivo and the Royal Free London NHS foundation trust.
The funding includes a contract worth up to £10m signed with hVivo, a subsidiary of Dublin-based pharmaceutical services company Open Orphan, to develop the model for the trial.
Dr Chris Chiu, from Imperial College London and lead researcher on the human challenge study, said: "Our number one priority is the safety of the volunteers. My team has been safely running human challenge studies with other respiratory viruses for over 10 years.
The trials could begin in January and involve up to 90 volunteers.
Apart from ensuring volunteers’ immune systems are not overburdened, one key component of the study will be choosing the appropriate strain of the virus. The strain was isolated about four months ago by hVivo and continues to represent the strain circulating in the UK population.
Andrew Catchpole, chief scientific officer of hVivo said that the team could achieve the goal
with 10, 20, or maybe even 30 people and this would determine the next move which would be vaccine testing
hVivo will get up to £10m to conduct the characterisation study, depending on the number of volunteers used.
Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the trials could be used to find an effective vaccine.
"First, for the many vaccines still in the mid-stages of development, human challenge studies may help pick out the most promising ones to take forward into larger Phase 3 trials," he said.
Dr Martin Broadstock, the programme manager for vaccines at the Medical Research Council added: “Human challenge studies have been ongoing for many years now – they are a useful way in which we can gain an awful lot of information in a relatively short space of time, from few numbers of people."
Despite the scepticism, volunteers are lining up. More than 2,500 UK volunteers have signed up to the 1 Day Sooner movement, which has been petitioning parliament to support human challenge trials and fund a challenge study centre to quarantine between 100 and 200 volunteers.
Volunteers could receive up to £4000 but will need to be approved by the ethics committee.