The student guinea pig

We all understand the stress of thousands of pounds of student debt looming over us (sorry to remind you of that), but just how far would you go to pay off the money you owe?

Some students are going to extents that may be considered extreme. In order to be paid sums of up to £3,500, the numbers of UK students volunteering to be infected with tropical diseases is growing.

Diseases can include typhoid, malaria, and pneumonia, and institutions such as Oxford University and Imperial College London are working to make vaccines to combat these diseases, which kill hundreds of thousands every year. Currently, a large focus is on pneumonia, which is the leading killer of children under the age of five, killing 1.4 million last year. A preventable disease, scientists are therefore eager to reduce this staggeringly high number.

Human guinea pigs have become a popular way for scientists to test new vaccines. The UK is also a world leader in studying infectious diseases, and as the risk of a global pandemic continues to grow, it is vital to introduce new vaccines.

‘The trials pay quite well and Oxford is very expensive. I used the money for my rent,’ said Matthew Speight, 27-year-old Zoology student at Oxford University. He has been infected twice with typhoid.

‘You swallow a cup of bacteria… Three or four days later I had this crazy fever. It was the height of summer during the 2016 heatwave. My body and joints ached, I had a strong headache, I was profusely sweating, I remember the bed being soaked, I had to do a lot of laundry that week. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.’ He described the experience as ‘the worst of my life.’

But with prices ranging from £200 all the way to £3,500 for the worst diseases, more and more students are turning to medical trials despite the fact they may be bedridden. As not every volunteer will contract the disease they ingest, some feel like it may be a risk they are willing to take.

The vaccine that was developed as a result of the trial Speight was involved in has now been given to 89,000 children in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Malawi, and results are expected later this year.

But are the studies safe? There are plenty of horror stories on the internet, such as a 2006 case where six male volunteers infected with a strain of leukaemia were left in critically ill states in hospital. However, scientists insist that nowadays the chances of become seriously ill are low.

Doctors are on hand for 24 hours a day, and the volunteers have extensive medical checks. They also receive a full course of antibiotics at the end of the trial, whether they became sick or not, to eradicate all of the remaining bacteria.

‘I want to contribute to tackling diseases in any way I can. It’s rewarding, even if it can be a terrible experience,’ said Speight.

Would you become a human guinea pig to help pay your rent? What are your views on human trials? Tweet us @Concrete_UEA, comment on our Facebook page, or send an email to We’ll publish some of your responses in the next issue.

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June 2022
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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