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Scientists plan to deliberately infect people with the flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 200,000 people are hospitalized for the flu each year. In some cases, death results. Is it ethical to intentionally infect people with the virus? New science says yes.

Woman in bed with flu

Photo credit: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

New research to be conducted by the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center is being planned to try to find better vaccines and treatments for the flu.

The purpose of the study is to observe how the body fights off the flu in different ways, beginning the minute the patient is exposed. How are they going to do this? The researchers are physically going to inject the virus straight up the noses of the subjects, who will be required to spend nine days in isolation.

Clearly, this sounds a little fishy, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

The rationale

The best way to control influenza is to prevent through vaccination. However, because of various strains of the virus, the vaccine is not always effective, particularly in the very young, the old and those with poor immune systems. The subjects of the study will be healthy people between the ages of 18 and 50 years. Dr. Matthew Memoli, principal investigator of the study, believes that a better understanding of how the young, healthy body combats the illness will lead to better prevention protocol in the future.

OK, so his intentions are good. But this can’t be good for the subjects, can it?

The downfall

Dr. Memoli will be comparing how sick the subjects get, how long they are contagious and the various ways their bodies will try to combat the virus. Clearly, this means the researchers are well aware that some patients will become sicker than others. Even in a well-controlled environment, the flu can take unpredictable turns.


Why infect healthy individuals if there are so many people who already have the flu? Apparently, scientists claim that for this research to work, the monitoring must begin the moment they are infected. They want to see what the immune system does right off the bat. Unfortunately, weighing the pros and cons of medical research is usually somewhat inconclusive.

The ethics of medical research are often based on a risk-to-benefit ratio. Are the risks worth the potential advances in medicine? In this situation, it is hard to say. So much is still unknown regarding the influenza virus and its multiple strains. What is the likelihood that the study will, indeed, lead us to a better understanding of how the body fights the flu? Will this potential understanding even lead us to better vaccines? Could purposefully making a few people sick now lead to a tremendous decrease in those sick in the future? I guess we’ll find out.

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