I have volunteered for a human challenge trial — that is, to deliberately infect myself with the coronavirus to quickly test whether a vaccine works. Human trials are still being debated, and some experts think the risks are too high, but there are already many situations in which we let people knowingly take similar risks because the benefits are so high. I’ve made the same kind of decision before.
After graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps and served in Mali as a water and sanitation volunteer. The goals of the Peace Corps are to help professional training of those in need and to help Americans and people in other parts of the world build greater mutual understanding. At every orientation, the Peace Corps makes sure that volunteers know of the inherent risk of going abroad and want to do so anyway. Already over 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have traveled across the world well aware of the hazards of the work. I volunteered to go out of my comfort zone and to work to improve the world.
A year into my service, I contracted malaria and spent a week recovering in the clinic. I knew such a risk was possible when I signed up to go to Mali, and the Peace Corps doctors did everything they could to help me recuperate quickly. After my time in Mali with the Peace Corps I continued to work in Africa and caught malaria a second time in Cameroon working with solar-powered water pumps. Again, I knew that this was a risk. I recovered and the risks of catching a deadly disease have not impeded my desire to work in Africa and make a difference.
Now, I’m willing to take on another risk — this time for the sake of humankind — by taking part in a potential Covid-19 human challenge trial. I am one of over 38,000 people who have volunteered with 1Day Sooner, a non-profit that advocates for challenge volunteers. I see this as parallel to my decision to join the Peace Corps and work abroad. In this case, I’m aware of the risk posed by contracting Covid-19, but I also know that every day counts in developing the most successful vaccine that could save lives.
Unlike traditional vaccine trials, which take up to a year and rely on accidental exposure to the virus to test vaccines, challenge trials take around a month by relying on deliberate exposure to test the vaccine. These trials can also answer essential questions about the early stages of Covid-19 infection. I am volunteering for challenge trials because they can bring the best vaccines to the general public one day sooner without posing a danger to the highest-risk people and without relying on the general population being sick.
In 1918, he last major influenza outbreak killed roughly 675,000 Americans in the span of a year. Already, the US has reached 200,000 deaths after less than nine months of Covid-19. Maryland alone has lost over 4,000 lives. Covid-19 challenge trials could save thousands of lives during this pandemic, and they could also be useful for future pandemics as well. The sooner we begin empowering challenge volunteers, the better prepared we will be when this happens again. The work should begin right now, and I hope researchers accept my offer to take part in a COVID-19 challenge study.
Graham a structural engineer based in Lowell, MA.