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9 May 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 1:33pm

Meet the students being paid up to £3,750 to test flu vaccinations

Two weeks in total isolation, and the potential for long term side effects – would you do it?

By Indra Warnes

“I find myself showering for at least 30 minutes, just so I can do something other than sit or lay on my bed,” Alex* complains, halfway through her two-week stint at FluCamp.

Enticed, she admits, by “the quick and easy money” offered to participants of medical trials, the business student signed up two months ago. She realised “there was no way I could earn the same amount in a fortnight working a normal job,” when her flatmate, who had also registered, told her she could make up to £3,750 for a stay of up to 18 days.

After three weeks of blood, urine and cardiac stress tests, as well as extensive quizzing on her family’s medical history, the 23-year-old was found eligible for the study and injected with a flu vaccine not yet deemed safe for the public. She, like 800 participants before her, would be a human guinea pig for the drug.

After one last set of blood tests a week later, Alex travelled to Whitechapel in east London, to enter FluCamp. She was relieved to do so, as some are turned away after the final tests, despite having already been injected with the vaccine.

Like all other participants, she was required to spend the duration of the trial quarantined – completely unable to leave her allocated bedroom. A final year student months from graduation, Alex envisioned a two-week break in which, locked away from the outside world, she’d be able to focus her full attention on revising for her upcoming exams.

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The reality hasn’t entirely lived up to her expectations.

With its single bed, regulation armchair, wheeled desk and stark lighting, her room is clinical and, perhaps unsurprisingly, distinctly reminiscent of a hospital. It has a no-frills en suite in what is essentially a large cupboard; basic, wipe-down, functional. What it doesn’t have, however, is an external window.

This is her unfortunate luck of the draw, though. Half of FluCamp’s rooms do have external windows, and, although residents are not allowed to open them, she tells me the lucky ones actually get quite a nice view over the London skyline.

Each morning, Alex is woken a little after 5am for a nasal wash. A tube is inserted deep in her nostril and used to rinse a liquid around her nose. The whole procedure takes less than three minutes, but is, she admits, a little more invasive than she’d like at that time in the morning.

Alex typically goes back to sleep when the nurse leaves, but is most days woken again two hours later by another nurse brandishing a needle and three tubes to be filled with her blood. Again, although she is full of praise for the kind-natured staff, it is not an enjoyable wake-up call.

Throughout the day, doctors and nurses return to perform tests on her lung capacity and physical health – as well as a second, evening nasal wash.

When she’s not furthering medical science, though, Alex is largely left to her own devices. In the solitary confinement of her room, she has a television and a PlayStation 3, as well as access to Wi-Fi and her laptop. Three times a day, hot meals are delivered to her on a tray – although she’s less than enthused by these, describing them as “hospital-like and microwaved”, and sending me photos of plastic trays of questionable beige food that wouldn’t look out of place on a long-haul flight.

Despite high hopes of revision, she admits finding that staying in one room for two weeks is, so far, not proving particularly conducive to productivity. “If I was in the library, or even at home, I’d take a break every 45 minutes, just to walk for five minutes or so,” she says. “At FluCamp I find it difficult to stay focused.”

Even in this state of isolation, Alex doesn’t have much privacy. Her room may be lacking in any natural light, but each has an internal window looking into the corridor. The blinds must be open all day, every day.

Asked if she’d ever return, Alex says probably not. Not unless she really needed the money, anyway. But others are not so object to a second stint. One such former inmate hoping to return is Emily Jowett.

Last June, the then 20-year-old spent an 11-day period at FluCamp during her university’s summer holiday. Like Alex, Emily had heard of FluCamp from a fellow student, and signed up because she needed a way to pay her rent over the summer. Student loans, a lifeline for most in higher education, are typically paid in three instalments at the start of each university term – usually in October, January and April – with no support available over the summer months.

In many ways, their experiences were very different. When Emily is asked to name the best thing about FluCamp, aside from the money, she cites her “nice big window”. Alex spoke of her boredom, while Emily enjoyed having so much time to herself. Free from the pressures of exams, unlike Alex, Emily spent much of her time reading and watching Breaking Bad in its entirety.

Yet in one crucial aspect, their experiences, almost a year apart, were identical. Neither got the flu. Taking part in an earlier stage of the process, Emily, wasn’t there to test a vaccine – instead taking part in an early stage trial, in which she was given a dose of the flu so that her symptoms could be studied. Which can’t have taken long, because there were none – bar “a runny nose for about half an hour one afternoon”, which she doesn’t think she’d have given a second thought were she not in the hyperaware confinement of FluCamp.

It could be that both participants were given a placebo; Emily never asked and Alex won’t be told until weeks after her trial finishes. It could also be that they simply didn’t react to the virus; participants are only given a diluted dose of the flu – and as Phil Whitaker wrote in the New Statesman last month, only 25 per cent of patients who tested positive for influenza in a 2011 study actually had any symptoms.

Having discussed FluCamp with almost everybody I’ve met in the past few weeks, most appear unbothered by the prospect of getting ill. The solitary confinement seems the far more divisive issue, apparently split pretty equally between “I could not bear that much time alone, I would go crazy” and “I’d love it, think how productive I could be with two weeks of peace and quiet”.

But often, and understandably, the main concern is testing out an unknown medication. FluCamp doesn’t engage in any Phase 1 trials, which involve the administration of very small doses of drugs to test whether they’re safe to give to humans. Medicines deemed safe can then move into Phase 2, which does take place at FluCamp, when larger doses are tested to determine their efficacy at curing the illnesses they’re intended to – in this case, flu.

The tests at FluCamp are NHS regulated, and Alex was told none of the 800 people who have already tested the medication have had any short-term symptoms. But what, then, about the long-term side effects? Obviously it is as yet unknown whether any will emerge, but the risks are still there. It was these risks that prevented Alex from telling her parents that she was going to FluCamp; knowing they would be disapproving and concerned. But for many students, as all Alex’s fellow FluCamp participants were, the short-term monetary benefits far outweight these potential health risks of the future.

*Names have been changed.

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