CNN  — 

Abie Rohrig had just turned 18 when he told his mom he would be donating a kidney to save a stranger’s life. Her answer: No you’re not. He did it anyway – the organ went to a man about his age – and his mom was so inspired she went and donated a kidney herself.

So Rohrig expected her to understand when he told her that, for the benefit of humanity, he may volunteer to become infected with Covid-19.

It turns out “she’s more worried than she was about the kidney thing,” said Rohrig, now a 20-year-old college student who lives with his parents in a New York City apartment.

“She was like, ‘What? What? I don’t know,’” he said. “She’s skeptical.”

Rohrig is one of more than 16,000 people – most of them young adults – who have signaled their support for a controversial method of speeding up the development of a vaccine by intentionally infecting dozens of volunteers. The signees of the online registry – a new website called 1 Day Sooner – have all checked a box next to the statement: “I am interested in being exposed to the coronavirus to speed up vaccine development.”

Abie Rohrig, 20, has signed an online registry, called 1 Day Sooner, expressing his interest in being exposed to the novel coronavirus.

The practice is called a human-challenge study – or controlled human infection study – and it can truncate a conventional vaccine study by several months. The reason: Rather than waiting for months to assess what percentage thousands of vaccine-trial volunteers get infected with the disease in question while leading their day-to-day lives, a challenge trial is much simpler, in that it exposes about 100 volunteers directly to the pathogen – via syringe, cocktail, mosquito bite or nasal spray after an experimental vaccine or placebo is administered. (If the Covid-19 study comes to fruition, experts say it would likely be administered by nose drop.)

But if it’s high reward, it’s also high risk: Although Covid-19 is a much more deadly disease for the elderly and the compromised than healthy young adults, it is an unpredictable pathogen that has put star athletes in the hospital. What’s more, should something go wrong, treatment options are limited.

However, with the disease still raging after having killed more than 82,000 Americans and 291,000 people worldwide since it first appeared in China late last year, some say a riskier-than-normal study is justified.

Challenge studies offer high reward, but also high risks

Abie Rohrig pictured with his mother, Elaine Perlman. Rohrig, who has already donated a kidney, says he's willing to be exposed to the coronavirus as part of the search for a vaccine.

The notion of a human-challenge trial for Covid-19 was jump-started by a March 31 article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, which made the case that the nature of the global emergency warrants consideration of unconventional approaches.

Co-authored by Nir Eyal of Rutgers, Marc Lipsitch of Harvard, and Peter Smith of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the piece concluded that while a human challenge study would not be without risks, “every week that vaccine rollout is delayed will be accompanied by many thousands of deaths globally.”