A medical staffer vaccinates a colleague with the AstraZeneca vaccine at the South Ile-de-France Hospital Group in Melun, France on February 8, 2021.

  • A world-first study in the UK is infecting 90 healthy young people with coronavirus.
  • Scientists will figure out the smallest amount of virus needed to cause COVID-19.
  • They will also study how it spreads from person to person, and which vaccine works best.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A world-first study will infect young, healthy people with coronavirus in a controlled environment to learn more about its characteristics, UK officials announced Monday.

The so-called "human challenge" study has just received ethical approval, and will recruit 90 people between the ages of 18 and 30 who are at low risk of COVID-19 complications. 

The study is backed by £33.6 million ($46.5 million) of UK government funding, and will begin within weeks, provided the hospitals with the secure facilities designed to contain the virus give the go-ahead, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said in a press release. 

The volunteers will be exposed to a lab-made coronavirus and monitored for 24 hours so that scientists can determine the smallest amount of virus that can cause infection. Researchers will also study how the virus spreads from person, and the volunteers' immune responses. 

The study will start with the original virus found in the UK in March 2020 - that has shown to be low risk for young, healthy people - rather than the more contagious coronavirus variant now spreading in the UK and elsewhere, called B.1.1.7.

Challenge trials regularly play a role in the development of treatments for diseases, such as for cholera and flu, but this is the first human challenge trial for COVID-19.

In a second wave of the study, a small number of volunteers will receive a COVID-19 shot that has proven in clinical trials to be safe, and then be exposed to coronavirus, to help identify which vaccines are most effective. 

"These human challenge studies will take place here in the UK and will help accelerate scientists' knowledge of how coronavirus affects people and could eventually further the rapid development of vaccines," Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK business secretary, said.

Dr. Chris Chiu, the study's chief investigator, from Imperial College London, said that the researchers' eventual aim was to establish which vaccines and treatments work best "in beating this disease."

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