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Listener supported WNYC Studios. Before we start one, you know, there's a moment or two of strong language in the story. You're. You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Hello. Hi, Laura. Yes, hey, it's Molly, how are you? I figured I'm good. I'm good. How are you?


Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. We have not done a coronavirus dispatch since the summer. I think so. We're going to do one this week. This is dispatch number thirteen. Lucky number that it is. And this dispatch kind of grew out of a simple conversation between our senior correspondent Molly Webster and reporter Laura Ross Browed.


Tell them, how did you stumble into the world of the story? So let's see. So, I mean, actually, it's sort of funny.


Like, I I'm just going to say, you know, all of this in case it's helpful everything.


So I actually had this like, very kooky, like fiction idea.


Normally, Laura's a reporter for public news service, but given how crazy everything's been, she was sort of wondering if she could come up with a cool fictional scenario to do a story about.


Yeah. And so so in any case, those who are like, OK, would it be like a black mirror episode if like it was like a rehab facility that only like super, super rich people went to and they would like get infected with covid, but then they would get just like state of the art treatment and, you know, had these parties and would just be like super, super minor thing. And they'd like have fun with people. And it'd be like essentially going to a resort.


Yeah. You're going to get covid.


It's yeah. It's like a spa. Like a covered spa. Right. Right. That was kind of what I was thinking. I was like, oh, that could actually be kind of cool.


And then she says the journalist side of her kind of kicked in and she thought to herself, I wonder if the situation actually exists.


So she hopped on Google and then I started seeing people are volunteering to get infected with covid for the purposes of making a vaccine trial faster.


Now, I should say, Laura and I had this conversation a few months ago, and since then, hundreds of thousands of people have died of coronavirus. The other thing that has happened in that time, though, Pfizer executives are calling it one of the biggest medical breakthroughs in the past 100 years.


Basically, all of this vaccine news started to come out.


American pharmaceutical company Moderna says it's a vaccine candidate is nearly 95 percent effective. Breaking news from AstraZeneca overnight. The pharmaceutical company says its vaccine may be 90 percent effective in late stage trials, making it the third drug maker.


As most of you probably know, in the last few weeks, three different companies, Pfizer and Moderna and AstraZeneca, all announced covid vaccines.


Yeah, they tested those vaccines on hundreds of thousands of people in record time. It was blisteringly fast. Usually it takes years and in this case it took months. And one of the reasons it happened so fast is there are just so many people out there with covid right now. Like usually these trials take such a long time because you enroll tens of thousands of people and you give half of them the vaccine and half of them the placebo, and then you just wait for the subjects to become naturally infected.


And because we've done such a bad job of controlling the virus, scientists just didn't have to wait very long.


And look, these three vaccines are amazing, but it doesn't mean we're out of the woods just yet. Huh?


If you actually just simply look at the numbers, Pfizer says I can do a billion, one point two billion doses by the end of twenty twenty one. Moderna says something pretty similar.


AstraZeneca says three billion. You're like five billion vaccines. That's amazing. But you need two doses per person. So take that five billion and have that you're at, um, what you know, two point five billion.


And then it's a little hard to say, like how many people in the world will need to be vaccinated in order to provide some sort of like what everyone talks about is the herd immunity.


But you think the world has a billion people? A number that has been thrown around is 70 percent. That's five billion people that would need to get vaccinated.


And what we just broke down was the three vaccines that exist get us to two point five billion by the end of twenty twenty one.


And so there's a long way to go. There is in those numerical terms, it's it's long.


And I talked to one expert and he was saying five to seven vaccines. Sounds like the better number. And because of that you need to have more vaccines in development and you need to keep that development moving fast.


So one of the techniques researchers are using to speed up that process is this thing that Laura came across when she was Googling. It's a trial where people intentionally get infected with covid.


Exactly right. It's called a human challenge trial. Basically, the point of it is instead of. Doing these field trials, which can be very expensive, it can take a while to recruit people, you know, you have to be following thousands of people. So instead of doing that, you can instead recruit, let's say, around a hundred people.


What? Yeah, that's so small. Yeah, it's it was surprisingly low. It was surprisingly low. OK. Half the people get the vaccine candidate. Half the people get the placebo. Then you in fact all of them. And you know, you wait to see if the vaccine candidate works or not. And the challenge trial would typically take about a month because you're intentionally infecting people who, you know, you're not going to give a vaccine candidate to in this in this scenario.


But but how do they know that they can keep. Subjects in this study safe, I mean, because what we do know about covid is that some people get it, no symptoms, and then some people get it and they die within a few weeks.


Yeah. So this is actually pretty well outlined by the World Health Organization. They wrote a report about whether it was ethical to do this in the absence of a rescue treatment for covid-19. That is exactly what I'm saying is it's not like you have a good treatment if you're sick. We still don't know how to treat it. We don't even know why some people are fine and some people end up not being able to breathe.


Exactly right. Some thought it was still worth it because it had enough societal good to speed up a vaccine process that could potentially save thousands of lives if the vaccine became available sooner.


And the other part of the ethical debate around these types of trials, Laura says, is their history, which isn't good.


In the 40s, the University of Chicago in Illinois and the U.S. Army collaborated on challenge experiments. They were actually testing malaria drugs in. And this is a whole other kind of messed up part of human challenge, trial history in prisoners. And so this is really messed up. So not the doctors. They actually like included these malaria tests as a justification for their own medical experiments. Yeah, this was like one of their defenses at Nuremberg in 47, so so so people would say that the the medical experiments that the Nazis did were in a sense or are the original challenge trials.


Actually, not they're not the original one. The original one. And this is a whole other wormhole. That's quite fascinating. Is that the first vaccine, smallpox, that was developed by this man named Edward Jenner? OK, this was in 1796. OK, and guess how he first came to the smallpox vaccine?


I always feel like there's like testing on children that are involved or something.


You are very close. OK, so he purposely infected his Gardiners, eight year old son who didn't work. Yeah. So it worked. That's the thing. I mean, that was the first step to getting the smallpox vaccine. Wow.


So you mean Shandra's a really kind of at the heart of vaccine history, but I thought the whole point of challenge trials was volunteering.


OK, so that's the thing is they've now developed into becoming much more informed and they have to volunteer to be in the studies because of the risk that you're asking people to go through.


They are much, much, much more monitored than a typical Phase three trial. So they're not going to go about their normal lives. They're going to live in some quarantine facility. They're going to get state of the art medical treatment. It's like the virus is a coronavirus.


It's like real world coronavirus. Yeah.


So but they can't talk to each other. They're isolated. They're like in their room, you know, with like even though they've all been sick, they're not allowed to just hang out.


They've all been like, oh, I have a feeling. No, because also if you think about a controlled setting that could really complicate things. It's like, what if people get sick or if they're interacting with each other more? Right. Do you think you'd do it? No, I mean, let's play this way at this exact moment in time, definitely not because I have a one year old son, it's just like, yeah, that's not going to happen.


I'm trying to imagine anyone that would do this. Well, look, I ended up covering this non-profit called One Day Sooner, and this is pretty interesting. So one day sooner, basically, you know, they created this website and created this call for people who want to volunteer for such a thing and people quickly signed up. Oh, so this became Leive, I believe this was in April. Yeah, April, May. And now over 30000 people have signed up.


Holy wow.


Damn. Yeah. 30000 people have said I will I will knowingly risk my life to help vaccine research. Right.


Wow. And not only that, after we talked to Laura, the United Kingdom came out and said that they wanted to start a challenge trial with covid with humans in January of twenty twenty one. So just, you know. Wow. But weeks away.


And it just made me think about those volunteers, like, we are all working very hard to avoid coronavirus and not get it.


And they're like, OK, how can I put myself in front of this moving train?


At least that's that's what it sounds like to me.


Who would do that? Why?


I can tell you who would do it and I can tell you why just after the break.


OK, this is Radiolab. We'll continue in a moment.


Hi, this is Dustin Routon from Troy, Alabama. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Slome at w w w thought Lomborg Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science.


Sandbox is Science Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.


All right, ready, three, two, Jad Marley, Radiolab. So before the break, we heard about this peculiar kind of vaccine trial, which involves people volunteering to deliberately be infected with covid, which sounds insane to me, although very noble.


But Mollah, you say there are thousands and thousands of people who have volunteered to do this? Yeah, there's a list out there that has, I think at this point, over 37, 38000 people on it who have said jabbed me with covid, I'll take it. And we thought, OK, we have to go out and see who these people are like, who is this angelic? Who is this good?


And they had a lot of different reasons for signing up, not all of which.


Felt exactly like the kind of altruism I expected to find. Yeah. Who are they? OK, so the first one was Stephania.


Yes, I am Stephanie NALGO. I am a photography student. I live in Bristol and I am from Caracas, Venezuela.


And so. So at what point did you bump into the notion of a challenge trial?


Well, I do night shifts at a petrol station. I've been there three nights a week for the past two years now. I'm a student and I did this, like, brilliant plan in my mind where I'm going to go work at night and then study.


But they didn't translate into what what is that like?


Like what are the ebbs and flows at the petrol station during covid? Like, were there moments when it just was dead quiet with no one or does the petrol station always stay busy?


And it was kind of like this dystopian reality going out while everyone was saying in everything was deserted. I I have to travel by bus and it's like a 40 minute bus drive. It was just me and the driver.


And she told me those nights at the petrol station were like living on a planet of one. She'd be out there for hours, just her, nobody else. And so she would listen to podcasts to pass the time. Yeah. So I actually learned about the campaign through a podcast. So I heard about one day sooner and I went on the website while I was listening to the podcast.


And you can see the messages from people that have already signed in the reasons to do it. Do you remember any of the things that you read that night?


I mean, I can't remember specifically, but I remember being from all parts of the world, people from random people from Brazil, people from Russia. There were scientists, nurses, doctors, I think I read. And it makes you it makes you real. I think I was reading it and my hands were shaking.


It was it was something about I'm with them. I felt that I was with them. It feels like, oh, my God, there's a quiet movement growing in the background. And I had no idea that I was just working at this petrol station.


And like, all this was in the middle of the road.


Yes, that's exactly it. Like this this has been happening. So I can actually do something and I don't have to feel like shit here all alone in this dark night.


And I put my name for it. That was her first thought simply, I'm not alone. And then she had a second thought, which is that as a brown person, she had to enter.


Medicine is biased when it comes to dealing with racial minorities. But I also want to have a voice in the table. I want to be someone who advocates for people like us. It felt good. I mean, scary, but in a good way it felt hopeful. Wow, that's cool.


Next up, yes, hi. Hi. Hi, this is Molly Webster, Radiolab. How are you? I'm surviving Antonio. My name's Antonio Nettos. I live in Los Angeles and I'm a filmmaker.


And I jump into how you found out first about one day sooner and about challenge.


Charles is actually kind of silly. I actually saw. A piece on PBS News Hour about it maybe back in April, and I immediately looked it up and within five minutes I signed up. Why? Honestly, because it made sense.


Wow, that's very fast. It's a very fast decision.


I mean, it's it's kind of funny because, you know, I really thought it would have happened sooner, Joan. So, you know, it makes sense to me.


I mean, there's there's well, I think I just wonder, probably more than thirty seven thousand people watched that PBS NewsHour. So what I'm really trying to understand is like what is in you, Antonio? That got you to the to the sign up. This is a real therapy session here. I mean, what is in me, I mean, I don't have a family, I'm single. I don't have a lot to lose if something was bad to happen.


But at the same time, maybe it's more just like, oh, I don't want my parents to get it and then die.


But I mean, I think I think, you know, growing up in a few decades ago, there was a lot more sense of of of a community of America and being American. And I think that's one thing that I wish we could still hold on to this point in time. I mean, there should be thinking that, you know, two hundred thousand people have died since unnecessarily since, what, February or March?


I mean, not that it doesn't make any sense to me. And I don't want the numbers to getting that bigger, like there should be a sense of disease that if we can do something, we should do it. Volunteer number three. Hello, my name is David Bob, David, I am a Homo sapiens male, age 31 years for David.


His motivation didn't have to do with community or family or a sense of duty. It was more so about getting unstuck.


You know, we're basically in this helpless situation. We're all being told to stay at home and we are powerless. This is one thing that you can do that will be part of the kind of core solution, which is the vaccine.


I just don't think a lot of people are thinking about how they can help others. And so I'm just wondering where you think that got built into you.


I was very zealously religious when I was growing up, brought up in a Christian home, but sort of attended an evangelical church when I was a teenager. I think from a very young age, I had this idea that life was about being like Jesus and being good to people. And when you've grown up with and I sort of cosmology a complete and consistent cosmology that explains the universe and your part in it to basically not not overnight, but over over a relatively short period of time, realize this whole garbage and leaves leaves you kind of floundering and thinking, well, fuck, I need I need to replace it with something else.


Like, I need I need some sense of purpose. I'm I'm restless unless I know I'm doing something that's kind of making the world a better place, not a worse place.


So he's saying that signing up for a challenge trial is sort of like making up for the faith in God that he lost at some point.


Yeah, I think something like that. And I would also say he said if he was being totally honest, signing up also had a little to do with boredom like I did.


I retrained as a software developer in this chair that I'm sitting in. I searched for a new job in this chair. I started a new job in this chair, and now I'm talking about it in the same chair. And it's like I could really use a change of scenery actually going to a biocontainment center. For me, it would be quite exciting. Quite nice. Volunteer number four. Hello. Hi, is this L'heure? It is. Hi, LaCour, who had a little bit more of an analytical, utilitarian sort of approach.


I could get covid at any second, but it it wouldn't be doing anything like it wouldn't be productive. Like I would be just as sick, just as miserable, have just as much of a chance of all of these big long term health effects that we're still discovering and it would not have. Done anything, you know, like this is an opportunity to touch it, but for the purposes of helping thousands of other people not catch it, if she got covid in the wild, it sort of wouldn't be for anything.


You know, at least if she's in a trial, scientists can learn from it. Right. Interesting.


She's like, if I'm going to get sick with this damn novel virus, I might as well do it in a way that's productive. Hmm. Exactly.


And our fifth and final last volunteer, Molly, hello, is finally Bill. I'm Bill Phillips. I'm an experimental physicist.


And you happen to be a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Yes. So being look look, having a Nobel Prize in physics does not qualify me to make pronouncements about any of these things any more than any other person is a scientist and loves to have good data. If a trial has some probability of losing a few people, but you save more lives than you lose as long as everybody is clear on informed consent. It seems to me the perfectly reasonable moral position.


And so I signed up for a challenge trial. And after people started to question me, why are you doing this bill? Are you crazy?


Oh, is that what happened? Well, yeah, I got a number of people asking me that because of my age. How old are you?


So I'm almost 72. So I did a little bit of research to try to determine what were the chances that I would die given my age if I got the coronavirus. And it turned out that it wasn't that different from the probability that I'll die within the next year anyway.


Well, can you do you remember the numbers like what numbers are in the order of a couple percent? In other words, at my age, the chances of me dying in the next year are a couple percent. And that's very similar to the chances of dying.


If I actually catch cozy, like he's just saying, if I'm not scared to live another year, why would I be scared of getting covid? Like, mathematically the odds are the same, huh?


So after talking with all of these people, I'm curious, what do you left with in terms of because, you know, our simple question going in, if I if I remember, was just like what?


I don't even know what the question was, just like, who are people?


What why would you be motivated to do this? Yeah. Yeah. Who is this altruistic. Yeah, exactly.


Do you what what do you see as an answer to that or is there anything.


I would say that for me altruism feels kind of like a catchall phrase that like hides what people are actually like on about like what they're really going for, like this thing that we call altruism.


It could interestingly be paired with like a selfishness or self-interest of like you just want your life back. Yeah.


Or it could be because you're looking out for a family member, you know, your dad, your grandmother, it could be want of representation or there's a feeling of duty or country or community. It could be just math. None of these things necessarily feel like altruism. But I don't know, maybe they are. Maybe they're the truer form of the word. Mm hm. Special thanks for this episode, goes to a break, Andrew Catchpole and our volunteers, including Mary Gavriel, Paul Gregory, Dannica, Jennifer and Debow.


Thank you, Molly. Sure. Senior correspondent Molly Webster, thanks also to reporter Laura Ross Perot Tellem. This is what we want you to calling from Fayetteville, Arkansas, Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soarin Wheeler, Lulu Miller and lots of Nassr. Our co-host Dylan is our director of Sound Design. Susie Lichtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Rebecca Bresler, Rachel Kucik, David Gabal, Matt Kielty, Tobin Lowe, Annie McEwen, Sara Cari, Arianna Black, Pat Walters and Molly Webster with help from Cima Lily, Sarah Sondakh and Johnny Moon.


Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.