InterviewWhy? A combination of altruism and enlightened self-interest

Infect me: Keren, 29, volunteers to catch coronavirus to help end pandemic

US-born ex-soldier, engineering student one of 61 in Israel to sign up for ‘challenge trial’ to advance vaccine research, despite risk of ‘death and very unpleasant complications’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Keren Pedersen (courtesy of Keren Pedersen)
Keren Pedersen (courtesy of Keren Pedersen)

Fresh from graduating college, Keren Pedersen is gearing up for her next challenge: exposure to the novel coronavirus.

She wants to introduce SARS-CoV-2 into her body, convinced that by doing so, she will help to speed up vaccine development. Pedersen, 29, who immigrated from the US to Israel as a child, thinks it will be a “very unpleasant process” but feels “passionate” about taking part.

She is one of 61 Israelis who have signed up for an international initiative gathering volunteers who are willing to test potential vaccines by receiving either shots or placebos and then being exposed to the virus in a controlled environment.

Pedersen, a resident of Pardes Hanna, is part of a small but growing movement of people who say they are ready to be subjected to the virus because they think standard human testing methods to get vaccines approved will just be too slow.

In regular vaccine testing, volunteers are given a vaccine or a placebo, and infection rates monitored as they go about normal life. But so-called challenge trials, in which people are intentionally exposed to a pathogen, have been used for some diseases, including typhoid, cholera, malaria and influenza.

A participant in a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine trial receives an injection in Kansas City, Missouri, April 8, 2020. (Center for Pharmaceutical Research via AP)

The World Health Organization says that such experiments may “not only accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development, but also make it more likely that the vaccines ultimately deployed are more effective.” It called them “ethically sensitive,” but released a document outlining circumstances under which they may be acceptable for COVID-19. Still, some scientists are critical of the idea, such as William A. Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor and founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments, who said it is “dangerous” and “unethical.”

Pedersen, a former IDF soldier who just finished a mechanical engineering degree at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is waiting to hear from the 1 Day Sooner nonprofit whether she’ll take part in testing. The US-based organization is building a base of people prepared to take part in a challenge trial, and has 30,000 volunteers worldwide. It has started to contact vaccine developers offering their services — but it is unclear if they will be accepted, given the ethical considerations.

Pedersen told The Times of Israel about her decision.

Most of the world is trying to to avoid the coronavirus, but you want to have it introduced into your body, for the sake of science. How did you arrive at this decision?

I first heard about the idea in a podcast, in the beginning of April. It seemed very logical to me, and I thought, “ah, I’m not in any of the risk groups and I’m the right age, so I can volunteer.” The emotional response was a bit more conflicted than the intellectual response. I had to digest it for a couple of days before I was completely sure, but I concluded that it’s a good decision.

I was aware of all the potential consequences, even for someone who is healthy: possibility of death and very unpleasant complications I could end up living with for the rest of my life — brain damage, damage to the heart and blood clots. All of this made the decision a bit harder.

The way I see it, I’m prepared to volunteer to do a very unpleasant process with a certain amount of risk — but one that will hopefully help to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control sooner than we would otherwise.

Keren Pedersen during her IDF service (courtesy of Keren Pedersen)

What about the psychological element, with any test probably involving weeks in full and controlled isolation?

Even for an introvert like me, who likes sitting in a quiet room with a book, it wouldn’t be easy psychologically.

Are you married and/or a mother?

No. I have a parrot. If I were a parent the decision would be much more complicated.

What convinced you to sign up?

It’s a combination of altruism and enlightened self-interest — the latter because I have been experiencing many concerns about the future and the consequences of the pandemic, to which I’ve already lost one relative.

Funeral home workers prepare to load coffins into a waiting vehicle to transport to a public hospital in order to pick up bodies of deceased persons who are suspected to have died from the novel coronavirus, at a crematorium in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Let’s come back to this, but first, what is your parents’ reaction to your decision?

My mom and dad live in Silver Spring [in Maryland]. After I signed up I went on our WhatsApp group and posted a link to the volunteer organization’s website, and before I could type out that I’d signed up to participate, my mom had already replied saying: ‘None of you guys should dare sign up to this.’ My mom was not happy about it when she heard I’d volunteered, but said she respects my decision.

You stated that there is some self-interest in volunteering. Can you explain?

Man holds sign saying he has become unemployed. (iStock)

I’ve been thinking about the effect that the pandemic will have on our economy and our society: how the economy will look in one year and five years, how we’ll sustain our welfare and health system. What will things look like? Will there be theaters that will be active? What will happen to my quality of life if the pandemic continues?

Last year I expected my quality of life to carry on improving as it has been in recent decades, but if our society and economy is hit so hard, how will my life look in future? Will we be able to fund the cancer research that may save my life 40 years from now? There’s a risk in volunteering, but if we don’t take every opportunity to accelerate a vaccine, this also has negative effects on my health, maybe not directly now, but they will be there.

Are you motivated by other factors too?

Possibly my main concern is how the pandemic may affect climate change. The coronavirus is not an existential threat to the human race, but climate change potentially is. And if we see a long-term economic downturn there’s lots of concern that countries will return to using dirty sources of power such as coal and there would be less effort invested into developing clean energy, as these changes require lots of capital.

Israeli activists and demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a Global Climate Strike in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 27, 2019, against inaction on climate change. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

So are you saying that you’re motivated to speed up a vaccine because, without one, you fear that environmental initiatives will suffer, and as economies struggle countries are likely to choose polluting power over green energy?

Yes. We’re talking about a phenomenon that could be a thousand times more destructive to our society and economy than the coronavirus itself.

Challenge trials can be controversial, and many ethicists have insisted until now that they be limited to diseases that can’t cause serious damage, or for which there is a cure. What are your thoughts on the ethics of a possible trial?

It’s not a simple matter. Medical ethics is so conservative on these issues is for good reason. There were many unethical medical experiments done in past in which people were exposed to deadly pathogens, sometimes without consent. It’s a good thing that the medical establishment has learned so much from lessons of the past.

But now, we’re consenting, and will be aware of potential consequences. And also, this is not a regular situation. It’s not a routine time. We need to transition, as the common Hebrew saying goes, mishigra leheirum, from routine to emergency mode. The consequences of not doing a challenge trial are much more serious than they would be for any disease in normal times, when not in the middle of global pandemic.

Do I detect some excitement?

Frankly I’d prefer not to have to take part in something like this, and rather learn that a standard vaccine trial miraculously has results in two months. It’s not going to be a comfortable experience. It’s going to require about two months of isolation and regular virus tests. So no, I’m not excited about doing it, but I do feel passionate about doing what I can improve the current situation as quickly as possible.

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