Coronavirus and Human Experiments

Bryan Caplan makes a couple of very interesting points supporting human experiments to learn more about Covid-19. I personally don’t like his framing on demagogues, but his piece is well worth a read. While there have already been people voluntarily signing up for vaccine trials, Caplan’s argument goes much further when he suggests investigating basic properties of the pandemic that can only be known through human experiments. From his piece:

To find the true IFR [infection-fatality-rate], you recruit a thousand volunteers, test them for coronavirus and coronavirus antibodies, deliberately infect half of the never-infected subjects, and then compare the death rates for the two groups. […]

To find the risk of fomite infection [infections through surfaces], similarly, first measure fomite levels in, say, eleven grocery stores. Then recruit a thousand volunteers, randomly send half of them to the median store to shop for an hour, quarantine all of them for two weeks, then compare the infection rate for the two groups.

Is this morbid? Yes. But we allow folks to fight and kill in a war in return for a paycheck. It is a bit odd we don’t allow them to instead do something of immense social value by participating in such an experiment. If you don’t like the taste of money being involved – we don’t even allow volunteers to do it for free. Robin Hanson also suggests infecting volunteers with very low doses of the virus – a process called variolation (after the smallpox, ‘variola’, where it was first commonly done). Getting a small dose of the virus could likely result in a much milder infection while at the same helping to build immunity. This makes sense if you assume a large portion of the society will eventually contract the virus. No ethics committee however has approved any steps towards human experiments yet that I am aware of.

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