Opinion

'Why I volunteered to be a guinea pig for a Covid-19 vaccine'

I'm frustrated by those who oppose human challenge vaccine trials for the sake of volunteers … when we actively wish to take part, writes Zacharia Kafuko

15 November 2020 - 00:03 By Zacharia Kafuko
Covid-19 human challenge trials can increase the number of potential vaccines and help optimise vaccines for easy distribution, says the writer.
Covid-19 human challenge trials can increase the number of potential vaccines and help optimise vaccines for easy distribution, says the writer.
Image: 123RF/vega7

The UK recently announced plans to conduct Covid-19 human challenge trials to accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments.

In these trials, researchers can test a vaccine's efficacy in a matter of weeks by giving young, healthy volunteers (who receive the best medical care) a vaccine candidate and then deliberately exposing them to the coronavirus.

This is far quicker than conventional Phase III trials, which rely on incidental exposure to the virus and take months or even years to return useful results.

Human challenge trials have helped researchers test vaccines for diseases like malaria, cholera and influenza.

For Covid-19, speeding universal vaccination by just one day would save thousands of lives. And, because challenge trials take place in highly controlled environments, they can reveal vital data from the onset of Covid-19 and the mechanisms of immunity, strengthening our scientific understanding of the disease.

The benefits are clear, yet some experts still oppose the trials. Marcia Angell,
former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, says: "People should not be used as a means to an end" — implying that challenge volunteers are victims of medical machinery.

As one of more than 39,000 volunteers from over 166 countries who have signed up for a Covid-19 challenge trial, I can unequivocally say that arguments like Angell's are wrong. Bioethicists have the responsibility of protecting people from exploitation under the general understanding of what is perceived to be for the good of the person.

In this case, my good is my volunteership: my primary interest in ending this pandemic sooner by volunteering for a clinical trial. Bioethics as a practice has a long history of ensuring that no man or institution takes undue advantage of others, but I am not a victim.

For me, it's absolutely justifiable to incur personal risk if it benefits others

I am a volunteer who understands the risks and still consents — and in doing so am expressing my agency to end this pandemic sooner rather than later.

I was born and raised on the African continent. My siblings and I shared basically everything, starting from food to toys (such as catapults made from twigs or wire cars). My parents were not rich, but they taught me filial and community responsibility. I learnt to take on personal risks for my fellow man irrespective of whether we were family, friends or total strangers. This is why, for me, it's absolutely justifiable to incur personal risk if it benefits others.

I am frustrated by those who oppose challenge trials for the sake of volunteers like myself when we ourselves actively wish to take part in these trials.

There are indeed risks in a challenge trial, but they are no greater than many other risks taken in the name of public service. Childbirth, trucking, logging, and kidney donation all involve a greater risk of death than Covid-19 for young healthy people, yet they are done because they are necessary and yield societal benefits.

The risks of not conducting challenge trials are huge, especially for those in the developing world. These trials will be critical in meeting the global demand for vaccine doses which currently stands at 16 billion (a vaccine and a booster shot for every human). We will need multiple safe and effective vaccines to meet this demand, and challenge trials can increase the number of potential vaccines and help optimise vaccines for easy distribution.

Right now, there are more than 37 million cases of Covid-19, over one million deaths, and 130 million people are at risk of hunger due to the secondary effects of Covid and its related response measures. Millions are suffering and dying. The pain they feel is not theoretical — it's real. It's self-evident that volunteers like myself should be able to take a risk to help all of humanity.

• Zacharia Kafuko is a molecular biochemist and Mandela Washington Fellow based in the Seychelles.