Australia’s first unit dedicated to human challenge trials for novel vaccines and treatments has opened. But what are the ethics of infecting healthy people – and who would do it?

Green plants, cool tones, casually placed scatter cushions: this living room in East Melbourne could belong to – or at least, be rented by – any millennial. The squeaky corridor floors are a giveaway, though; along with the beds on wheels.

This isn’t a real estate opportunity, but Doherty Clinical Trials (DCT) – Australia’s first unit dedicated to human challenge studies, where trial participants are given a dose of an infectious disease in a controlled setting. An offshoot of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne, it opens on Monday – a breeding ground, its proprietors hope, for discoveries that may redefine the future of disease.

Human challenge trials, or controlled human infection model (Chim) studies, are “highly valued as one of the most efficient ways to evaluate the efficacy of novel vaccines and therapeutics”, Andrew Brockway, the facility’s CEO, says. They serve two primary purposes: providing insight into diseases, such as flu or malaria, or “to more quickly determine if and how well a specific vaccine or drug in development works” by administering it to a small cohort, all of whom are subject to the same conditions.

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