COVID-19 human challenge studies: ethical issues

Lancet Infect Dis. 2020 Aug;20(8):e198-e203. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30438-2. Epub 2020 May 29.


COVID-19 poses an extraordinary threat to global public health and an effective vaccine could provide a key means of overcoming this crisis. Human challenge studies involve the intentional infection of research participants and can accelerate or improve vaccine development by rapidly providing estimates of vaccine safety and efficacy. Human challenge studies of low virulence coronaviruses have been done in the past and human challenge studies with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 have been proposed. These studies of coronaviruses could provide considerable benefits to public health; for instance, by improving and accelerating vaccine development. However, human challenge studies of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 in particular might be controversial, in part, for ethical reasons. The ethical issues raised by such studies thus warrant early consideration involving, for example, broad consultation with the community. This Personal View provides preliminary analyses of relevant ethical considerations regarding human challenge studies of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, including the potential benefits to public health and to participants, the risks and uncertainty for participants, and the third-party risks (ie, to research staff and the wider community). We argue that these human challenge studies can reasonably be considered ethically acceptable insofar as such studies are accepted internationally and by the communities in which they are done, can realistically be expected to accelerate or improve vaccine development, have considerable potential to directly benefit participants, are designed to limit and minimise risks to participants, and are done with strict infection control measures to limit and reduce third-party risks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus / immunology*
  • Betacoronavirus / pathogenicity
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Drug Development / ethics*
  • Drug Development / methods
  • Human Experimentation / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics / prevention & control*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Viral Vaccines / immunology*
  • Viral Vaccines / isolation & purification*


  • Viral Vaccines