The first trials to deliberately infect people with the coronavirus to accelerate the development of vaccines could occur in the UK next year as part of an agreement reached by the government.

Britain signed a contract with Open Orphan Plc and its hVivo unit, that paves the way for human challenge trials, the company said on Tuesday. The plan is to manufacture the virus and conduct a study to determine how much of the pathogen to expose volunteers to in the trials.

The tests would be carried out at the Royal Free Hospitals specialist research unit in London, with Imperial College London as a partner. The company didn’t comment on which vaccines could be used in the challenge trials.

Doubts raised

The agreement may mark a turning point in the debate over whether to conduct such studies, which could help researchers in their bid to combat the virus but expose healthy volunteers to potential risks. A campaign to launch challenge trials has gained momentum as the virus continues to advance globally.

Some public health specialists have questioned whether the studies are justified, citing the lack of treatments to save people who are seriously ill along with unresolved questions about the virus, including why some young and otherwise healthy people end up with complications months after experiencing mild symptoms. Proponents have said the risks would be minimised by selecting younger people who dont have underlying health conditions.

The study to identify the most appropriate dose of the virus is expected to be completed in May and will require regulatory and ethical approval, the company said.

Front-runners Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca Plc have said they have no plans to carry out challenge studies, while other vaccine makers such as Johnson & Johnson are looking at them cautiously.