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Southampton expertise bolsters world-first deliberate COVID-19 infection trial

Researchers in Southampton are part of a world-leading ‘challenge’ trial that infected young, healthy volunteers to give unique insights into COVID-19.

The trial, which deliberately infected low-risk volunteers with SARS-COV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, has provided important insights into the early stages of the disease.

Southampton researchers Prof Robert Read, Prof Tom Wilkinson and Dr Stephen Harden are part of the team of researchers delivering the trial. It is led by Prof Christopher Chiu from the Institute of Infection at Imperial College London.

Unique insights

The researchers gave nose drops containing the virus to 36 healthy, unvaccinated volunteers aged 18-29 years at the Royal Free Hospital in London. None of the volunteers had previously been infected with COVID-19.

The amount given was the same for all of them - the lowest possible measurable dose, equivalent to a single droplet from somebody's nose at the peak of their COVID-19 infection.

Just over half of the participants became infected, showing that the virus is highly infectious in people who have no immunity, either through previous infection or vaccination.

In those that were infected, the first symptoms and positive test results appeared within 42 hours, just under two days. This was much faster than the previous estimate of five days.

Lateral flow tests were shown to be a good indicator of whether a patient was likely to be infectious. High levels of infectious virus were also detected in the nose, which the researchers say highlights the importance of wearing a mask correctly to cover both the nose and the mouth.

The results have been published online but not yet formally reviewed by other scientists.

Collaborative effort

Prof Read is Director of the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre. Together with Prof Jonathan van Tam and Prof Peter Openshaw at Imperial College London, he initiated the first discussions that led to the creation of the research steering group.

He helped develop the protocol and see it through an approval process by an ethics committee. This involved a series of discussions with the public in Southampton, together with behavioural science experts. As the study progressed, he chaired the trial steering committee and supported Prof Chiu.

Prof Wilkinson, in his capacity as a respiratory consultant physician, was an advisor on lung imaging and lung function, while Dr Harden was radiologist adviser for the imaging tests used in the study.

Prof Read, Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Southampton, said: “The data from the world’s first human challenge study with SARS-CoV-2 has shown that people can be safely infected with the virus for experimental purposes.

“We have already learned a lot from the first 36 volunteers, including the minimum dose required to infect them, and the relative utility of diagnostic tests.”


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