Not many of us would willingly be infected with a potentially deadly new virus in the name of science.
But at the start of the pandemic, in a unique trial for Covid, that’s exactly what 36 healthy – and brave – young people did, offering to be infected with the coronavirus so scientists could learn as much as they could about this deadly new enemy.
I myself have taken part in some unpleasant and sometimes painful experiments, such as deliberately swallowing tapeworm eggs so that scientists at the University of Liverpool could study the worm’s impact on my immune system.
However, other than the initial reluctance of swallowing the eggs, I barely noticed they were there until I saw pictures of a pill camera I’d swallowed months later.
In another experiment, I was injected into a brain scanner with psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” being tested as a treatment for major depression). The effect was weirder – it was like that moment in Star Trek when the starship goes into hyperdrive; the walls of the scanner dissolved and I took off for the stars.
I myself have taken part in some unpleasant and sometimes painful experiments, such as the deliberate ingestion of tapeworm eggs
Scientists at the University of Liverpool studied the worm’s impact on my immune system
Still, I’m not sure I would have agreed to be infected with Covid-19, especially in the early days when we knew so little about it – although I’m glad others were willing to do so. That trial was conducted in February 2021 at the Royal Free Hospital in London and the latest results have just been published in The Lancet Microbe.
It was a kind of study called a “human challenge study” – and intentionally infecting healthy volunteers could be a really good way to study exactly how new viruses spread and how to treat them.
But this approach is also controversial, since you’re asking healthy people to expose themselves to the risk of serious illness, even death. Because you intentionally infect people, this kind of study is very different from a conventional vaccine trial where you inoculate a large group of people and wait to see who gets infected and whether the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the side effects.
This particular experiment was done under carefully controlled conditions and the volunteers were well aware of any potential risks.
In the past it was quite different. One of my medical heroes, Dr. Edward Jenner, was the first to show that you can protect people from smallpox (a disfiguring and often deadly disease) by infecting them with cowpox, a fairly harmless disease often contracted by milkmaids.
This was the first example of a successful vaccine and the impact of what Jenner did was incredible. But the way he proceeded to prove his theory is difficult to justify in hindsight. Jenner began by rubbing pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox blisters into the cuts he’d made on the arms of James Phipps, eight years old.
James, his gardener’s son, developed a slight fever but nothing worse. Two months later, in May 1796, Jenner cut James’ arm again, but this time he rubbed the pus of a patient with smallpox.
It’s unlikely that James or his family were aware of the risks – that James could contract smallpox and die a horrible death, as well as pass it on to the rest of his family. Fortunately, the earlier cowpox vaccination did indeed protect James against smallpox. Hugely encouraged by this result, Jenner did the same with 23 other people, including his infant son Robert. At the time, Jenner was ridiculed and savagely attacked by skeptics, the first in a long line of anti-vaxxers. But his approach produced such good results that it was soon adopted on a large scale and saved the lives of millions of people worldwide.
The recent results of the Covid challenge trial were nowhere near as dramatic as Jenner’s experiment, but what they discovered will prove extremely useful should another outbreak come along.
For starters, while all the volunteers were exposed to the same dose of Covid (in the form of live viruses sprayed up their noses), only half ended up being infected — suggesting the rest must have had some form of previous immunity.
And while none of the infected volunteers became particularly ill, two became so-called super-spreader, coughing or sneezing far more virus particles than anyone else in the group. This confirms what many scientists already suspected – that a small number of super-spreaders were responsible for most of the Covid cases.
The experiment also proved that, soon after people are infected, the virus is mainly found in their noses – showing how important it was to cover the nose when masking.
Because they took daily swabs from volunteers’ noses and mouths, plus blood samples, they were able to show that lateral flow tests, taken shortly after developing symptoms such as cough, are a reliable way to detect when people become infectious.
The experiment also proved that shortly after people are infected, the virus is mainly found in their noses – showing how important it was to cover the nose when masking
They also showed that shortly after becoming contagious, people start spraying Covid particles into the air and onto surfaces such as tabletops and door handles.
This matters because while there has been skepticism about whether you can pick up Covid by touching surfaces, a new study from Imperial College London showed for the first time that this is an important way to get infected.
Which in turn suggests that basic hygiene is a really powerful way to control the spread of a new airborne virus like Covid.
The UK’s Covid-19 inquiry, which has just begun, will look at the government’s approach to the pandemic, plus the effectiveness of lockdowns and preventive measures, such as mask-wearing.
The research will take at least two years – but in the meantime, thanks to studies like this one, we know a lot more about how coronaviruses spread, who is vulnerable and how best to protect ourselves if a new pandemic emerges.
And it also shows that despite our advanced technology, there are still times when we need human volunteers to answer fundamental questions.
I suspect that my big nose and tendency to get fat come from my father, but my gut microbiome – the bacteria, viruses and fungi that are important for health – is largely due to my mother, at least when I was a child .
That’s because our guts are sterile in the womb: but as we squeeze down the birth canal, we swallow a mixture of our mother’s fluids, seeding our guts with a unique mix of microbes that stay with us for years and create a play a role in our longevity. term health.
But babies born by cesarean section have different gut microbes and a greater risk of health problems such as obesity, asthma, food allergy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Now scientists at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, have tried to tackle this: In a study, 65 newborns born by cesarean section had their faces and mouths rubbed with gauze soaked in salt water or fluids from their mothers. .
At six months old, the “microbe” babies were developing faster and scoring higher on things like communication and problem solving. Similar studies are underway for asthma, eczema, ADHD and obesity.
While the new study is intriguing, it’s still in its infancy and parents certainly shouldn’t try it for themselves.
An afternoon nap may be what we all need
I was intrigued by a post in the Mail this week suggesting that a nap a day can keep memory loss at bay.
In a study published in the journal Sleep Health, researchers at University College London looked at data, including brain scans, from more than 35,000 people aged 40 to 69.
They found that normal naps had larger brains, suggesting that napping preserves their brain volume, which may reduce the risk of dementia and other diseases. My wife, Clare, likes a short afternoon nap, but I struggle to fit one into my day: maybe I should.
I was intrigued by a post in the Mail this week suggesting that a nap a day can keep memory loss at bay
I recently interviewed Dr. Sara Mednick, a cognitive neuroscientist and sleep researcher at the University of California, for my podcast Just One Thing. reset button, increased alertness and attention, as well as sharpening of motor skills (especially if you need to perform a task that requires coordinated muscle movements)’.
All you need is a bed or comfortable chair and an alarm to wake you up. Doesn’t sound difficult, right? Maybe I’ll try it again.
One of the first signs of summer is that people are starting to ditch shoes for flip flops. Not only do these have little arch support (wearing them for too long can lead to problems like plantar fasciitis, a painful condition where the tissue in the arch of the foot becomes inflamed), but a plastic surgeon friend says at this time of year he sees more than enough people who have had their toes cut off while mowing the grass in flip flops.
And don’t forget to slather on some sunscreen, because if they’re uncovered, the tops of your feet are just as vulnerable to the sun as your face.
One of the first signs of summer is that people are starting to ditch shoes for flip flops