What risks should be permissible in controlled human infection model studies?

Bioethics 34 (4):420-430 (2020)
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Abstract

Controlled human infection model (CHIM) studies involve the intentional exposure of healthy research volunteers to infectious agents. These studies contribute to knowledge about the cause or development of disease and to the advancement of vaccine research. But they also raise ethical questions about the kinds of risks that should be permissible and whether limits should be imposed on research risks in CHIM studies. Two possible risk thresholds have been considered for CHIM studies. The first suggests constraining ethically permissible risks according to a minimal risk threshold and the second endorses a higher risk threshold that excludes irreversible or fatal infections. I argue that neither of these thresholds is persuasive and situate questions about risk thresholds in CHIM studies within a broader debate about permissible risks in research. I argue that risks in CHIM studies should be constrained according to limits on research risks that do not offer corresponding benefits in all studies rather than developing a unique risk threshold for CHIM studies. I then propose five recommendations for the ethical assessment of risk in CHIM studies.

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