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Ethics & Human Research

Should Children Be Included in Human Challenge Studies?

ABSTRACT Human challenge studies, in which human research subjects are intentionally exposed to pathogens to contribute to scientific knowledge, raise many ethical complexities. One controversial question is whether it is ethically permissible to include children as participants. Commentary of the past decades endorses the exclusion of children, while new guidance suggests that pediatric human challenge studies can be ethically permissible. This paper argues that neither children’s exclusion nor their inclusion are well justified. I examine and reject three arguments for exclusion, but suggest that these arguments establish pediatric human challenge studies as a complex ethical category of research that requires caution. I then argue for a strong presumption against children’s inclusion, by drawing on an analogy to children’s inclusion in phase I trials, emphasizing a requirement of necessity, and suggesting that accommodating children’s vulnerability promotes an age de-escalation approach for pediatric human challenge studies research. In the final section, I suggest a procedure for ethics review.

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