As I lie in a hospital bed in a sterile clinic room, a nurse in blue scrubs with a full face shield and ventilator peers through the glass.
The red tape around the door makes it crystal clear that this is a high contamination zone.
I am in Flucamp, where 24 human guinea pigs will be willingly infected with a strain of coronavirus in the coming months.
The Mirror has gained exclusive access to the facility, which could play a vital role in the fight against Covid-19 by helping create a vaccine or anti-viral drugs.
Triallists can earn between £3,000-£4,000. Tens of thousands of volunteers have already applied.
“This is a critical step to fast-track development of these anti-virals and vaccines,” explains Dr Andrew Catchpole, chief scientist at Hvivo which runs the facility.
“We’re trying to use our expertise in this area to see what we can do.”
Volunteers will not be infected with Covid-19, but with “harmless” strains of the coronavirus – OC43 and 229E – which will cause a very mild respiratory illness.
The aim is to safely expose them to “close relatives” of the deadly strain, helping pharmaceutical firms test potential vaccines.
Dr Catchpole added: “If it can work on our virus, there’s no reason why it can’t work with Covid-19.”
Cathal Friel, executive chairman of Hvivo’s owner Open Orphan, added: “The company is starting the process of developing the world’s first coronavirus challenge study model – basically, we take a harmless version of the virus that we can use and monitor.
“This is a British company which is the world centre for virology.”
Hvivo, which has been running clinical trials on flu and cold viruses since 2001, has seen an unprecedented 10,000 apply for coronavirus tests at its site in Whitechapel, East London.
But the odds of being suitable are 100-1. Only 18 to 55-year-olds are even considered and smokers are immediately ruled out.
Dr Catchpole said: “We want very healthy individuals so we can be sure that the disease that’s given is controlled. Then they come in and have a blood sample. We’re testing for pre-existing immunity. We’ve all been exposed to family members of the coronavirus, we’ve all got some levels of immunity.
“We need to screen people so we’re only giving the virus to those who would get sick. That can eliminate up to 80% of subjects.”
For those who clear that hurdle, lung function and liver function tests follow.
Dr Catchpole said: “If you get through, participants would be invited back in for quarantine.”
A month before quarantine begins, half of the group will be given a potential Covid-19 vaccine – currently in development by a third party. The other 50% will get a placebo.
One month later, all are infected with a “lesser” virus via a nasal spray before being confined to one of the 15ft by 17ft rooms, only half of which have windows, for 14 days.
Staff in blue scrubs, gloves and ventilators will come in several times a day to take nasal swabs and other routine tests.
Gruesomely, the amount of mucus produced by participants is weighed daily.
Dr Catchpole explained: “When you have a cold you need to blow your nose, it’s an effective measure of the level of symptoms someone has.
“So we provide them with pre-weighed tissues so we know the weight of the tissue at the start and they have a sealed bag which they put used tissues in.”
Meals will be delivered on a tray by staff wearing ventilators and other protective gear. Access to TV, games consoles, wi-fi, and a few home comforts help ease the boredom of two weeks’ solitary confinement.
Site manager Laura Krizman said: “They’re encouraged to bring laptops, books, students bring projects. Some brought teddy bears, cuddly things.”
All personal belongings are decontaminated at the end of the trial.
Surprisingly given all that, ex-triallists have left rave reviews on Flucamp’s website.
One wrote: “It was a great experience. I had a TV a PlayStation, and wi-fi was amazing – you can watch Netflix .
“Overall, I think it’s a very good way to get some extra money and relax for a little bit.”
The thought of two weeks in Flucamp would leave most people running scared. All the more reason to admire the brave volunteers willing to endure it in the hope of making the rest of us that little bit safer.
- To see if you are eligible visit www.flucamp.com
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