Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are doing the seemingly unthinkable: recruiting 100 volunteers to get their noses swabbed with the flu virus for the sake of science. The trial is currently underway in Bethesda, Md., and so far 24 people have allowed themselves to be infected.
They’re handsomely compensated—up to $3,000—for their time, discomfort of flu symptoms, and acceptance of a small amount of risk.
“We expose them to a low dose of the virus that gives them a mild to moderate flu infection,” said Dr. Matthew Memoli, the study’s principal investigator at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Some develop no symptoms, while others may develop a headache, slight fever, sore throat, and cough. We’ve had no cases of severe illnesses that would result in complications so far.”
The purpose? To learn more about how the flu virus infects the body in order to develop better vaccines against it. Many vaccines now available don’t work well in the most vulnerable populations like the elderly, Memoli said.
“This new method of infecting volunteers with the virus could also lead to faster testing of new vaccines and new drugs against the virus,” he added. Currently, researchers have to test a vaccine or drug in large numbers of people and then wait to see who becomes infected with the flu during the winter season.
While the pay to participate in the study may seem generous, it’s proportional to the time commitment required. Volunteers have to travel to Bethesda at their own expense several times; once, for an initial screening to assess whether they have any underlying health conditions like asthma or heart problems that would exclude them from the study. If accepted into the study, volunteers must commit to staying at the NIH clinic in quarantine for at least nine days—until they no longer have the flu virus. They also must visit the clinic four additional times over two months for follow-up tests in order to get their payment.
Here are other details on enrollment.
“We’ve had a few calls from New England folks, but so far we haven’t recruited anyone who lives north of New York City,” Memoli said in an interview.