Young adults are volunteering to get COVID-19—for science

SARS-CoV-2 "challenge trials" can help scientists better understand the immune system's response to the virus, which could yield improved vaccines and treatments.

Paul Zimmer-Harwood enjoys taking on extreme challenges. In 2016, when he was 24 years old, he swam 18 hours to complete a 26-mile marathon in a swimming pool in Gütersloh, Germany. In 2019, he completed the Marathon des Sables—a six-day, 156-mile ultramarathon across sand dunes and dry riverbeds in the scorching heat of Southern Morocco. Later that year, as Zimmer-Harwood embarked on a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Oxford in England, he volunteered to get bitten by malaria-infected mosquitoes for a vaccine trial against the life-threatening disease.

In mid-2021, when scientists were recruiting young healthy adults to deliberately expose to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Zimmer-Harwood didn’t hesitate. “In my mind, it was an immediate yes,” he says. And while advancing science was important motivation for him, it didn’t hurt that he would be compensated nearly $6,000 for his time and discomfort.

Though he was unvaccinated at the time of the trial he’d already had Covid. “It made it a little less scary for me, but I’m pretty sure I would have done it either way,” he says.

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