As someone who doesn't take well to mild illness and leans heavily on quack remedies to alleviate even the slightest discomfort, the prospect of self-inflicted malaise is an incredibly unwelcome one. Medical trials, therefore, are not something on my bucket list. But when I stumbled upon an advert in a trendy magazine offering up to £3,750 to take part in something called FluCamp, the name emblazoned across the page in a preppy-style US sports-team font, my interest was piqued. Being ill can be miserable, but this sounded like a paid holiday.
FluCamp is run by RetroScreen Virology, a company that first started doing human-viral-challenge studies back in 2001, filling a gap left after the state-funded Common Cold Institute was shut down in the mid-1990s. There is currently no other research centre in the world conducting viral studies on humans on this scale. In the past 11 years, it has infected around 1,000 volunteers, the number of staff has grown to more than 250, and this year alone it plans to infect more than 300 people. In case you were wondering, it is always recruiting.
The company's chief scientific officer, Dr Rob Lambkin-Williams, agrees to give me a tour. I meet him at its state-of-the-art medical facility in Whitechapel, east London. It is the day before it begins its next trial and the facility is in the process of being decontaminated. Thirty minutes into my visit and I have already washed my hands at least a dozen times with sanitiser gel.
Dr Lambkin-Williams has been with FluCamp since its conception, long before the current purpose-built centre was opened. "The first time we ever tried to infect anyone was with eight people in a halls of residence, four of whom were good friends of mine," he tells me.
"Now, you're not really supposed to experiment on your friends, but you could do it back then. I must have been very convincing, but it was actually quite fun and I stayed in there with them to watch what was going on."
And it is from these early experiments that the FluCamp name originates: "Two of them had been watching a TV programme called Fat Camp and they just coined the name," he says.
For someone who spends his time infecting people with viruses, Dr Lambkin-Williams is not lacking a sense of humour. When the film Contagion, a disaster movie about a pandemic, was released, he arranged a staff outing to watch it. As if that wasn't tempting fate enough, his ringtone is the theme tune for the apocalyptic zombie flick 28 Days Later.
"We did a study here in August [in 2011] when the London riots broke out," he says. "I remember thinking: I'm in a state-of-the-art virus-research facility, I've just infected 21 people with flu and there are riots going on outside… I've seen this movie and it doesn't end well!"
The reality of FluCamp is slightly less extreme. The illness is "mild to moderate" and in a usual trial most people will feel like they have a bad cold, a couple will have a temperature and need to stay in bed for a day or two, and some lucky ones will feel fine. There has been only one serious incident, in which changes were noticed in a volunteer's blood due to the drug they were testing, but they recovered fully.
Before taking part, volunteers undergo extensive screening. They must be healthy and only a small proportion of those who apply make it on to a trial. Volunteers consist mostly of people in their mid-20s, often trying to save money or fund a trip abroad. They are infected with a virus such as the common cold, respiratory syncytial virus or a form of influenza, and are kept in the facility for up to two weeks. Some trials are simply to assess what happens to your immune system when you are infected, others are to test the effectiveness of new drugs and vaccines.
The "camp" itself is in a fully quarantined floor of the building. You enter through air-lock doors, passing biohazard warning signs on the walls. Inside is like a hospital ward but with en-suite rooms, each with a television and games console. Outside each door is a tablet computer for tests to be recorded and tables lined with dozens of blood-pressure pumps, latex gloves and other medical paraphernalia.
Next year, it may conduct norovirus trials. This has influenced the design of the rooms: the loo and sinks are close enough together to use at the same time.
Despite the jovial FluCamp website describing it as a way to "make new friends", there are no campfire songs or board games – most trials will require volunteers to spend almost all of their time alone in their rooms. Some of these rooms don't even have windows to the outside world, but they all have a window on the inside through which the medical team can peek in at the volunteer.
One week after my visit and FluCamp is now in full swing. Around 20 volunteers are occupying the quarantine centre. Fortunately, in between their daily routine of having samples taken and their temperature checked, they are able to take phone calls.
"I am starting to feel a little tired," admits 19-year-old care worker Oli, who decided to sign up so that he could afford to spend a season working in Ibiza. "I'm just trying to stay positive. It's quite exciting being tested on, so I'm not scared at all. I'm lucky to have a window – apparently I've got a better view than the person next door."
Cocktail bartender Billy, 23, was also motivated by the money. FluCamp was suggested to him by a friend as a way to fund a trip to Australia.
"When I turned up, it was quite daunting," he says. "I arrived downstairs with my suitcase, they put a mask on me straight away and sent me upstairs. I haven't left my room since.
"Getting infected was a bit surreal. I just lay back and they pretty much syringed a liquid into the back of my nose. It wasn't uncomfortable, but felt a bit weird. They moved all our beds so they were in line with the door so it was easy for them to syringe and then walk on to the next person. You were lying on your back with your head out the door and if you looked down the corridor you could just see another head poking out."
Most volunteers complain about the boredom and missing their friends, though for Maria, 27, an MA student in creative writing, it was the chance to be locked away for two weeks that really appealed to her. "The idea of having two weeks in isolation, so I could get on with uni work, was good. It's been very productive for me, I'm doing a lot of writing. And the food is good, actually, though this is coming from someone who's a student, so I'm just happy with the fact that I'm getting fed three times a day and I don't have to cook it."
With any luck, the volunteers will now be home again, feeling better and with a bit more money in their bank accounts. Hopefully, they will feel it was a fair exchange. FluCamp itself may not be a holiday, but it can certainly pay for one.Reuse content