Flu Camp

Jon Day

Near the end of Steven Soderbergh’s epidemipic Contagion, as the bodies pile up around the world, a scientist goes to visit her dying father in hospital. She takes off her face mask. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks. ‘It’s OK,’ she says, and kisses him on the forehead. In a previous scene we’ve seen her inject herself with an experimental vaccine, and now she's testing it. ‘Do you remember Dr Barry Marshall?’ she says. ‘He thought that bacteria, not stress, caused ulcers. Gave himself the bug and then cured himself. You taught me about him.’

The New York Times journalist Lawrence Altman called his history of self-experimentation in medicine Who Goes First? When I got home from the cinema I found a flyer with a jaunty space-invader graphic lying on the floor among the kebab-house menus and cab-company cards. ‘Help us beat cold and flu bugs!’ it said. ‘Help save extra lives.’ I read on:

Do you often find yourself taking on new challenges and frontiers? If the answer is ‘yes’ and you are healthy, 18-45 and do not suffer from hayfever or asthma, then you could help us! At Flu Camp we are always taking on new challenges! We conduct clinical trials that help to develop new treatments for cold and flu viruses.

 Flu Camp stresses the innocuousness of inoculation. ‘Compensation’ of £3750 is offered to those willing to be infected with flu and isolated in a quarantine unit for 18 days. I live in a block of mainly council housing in Hackney, and it’s not hard to guess who Flu Camp is targeting. Who goes first? In this case, the poor.


  • 2 November 2011 at 2:30pm
    m_miller says:
    From David Tyrell's obituary in the Lancet, June 2005:

    The UK's Common Cold Research Unit (later the Common Cold Unit), in Salisbury, came into being after World War II when Harvard University donated a wartime hospital it had set up for the British military. In 1957, David Tyrrell, who had worked at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, USA, and at the then-infant UK's Medical Research Council but was still a “reluctant young virologist”, as he would later describe himself, became head of the unit. He took over what was planned as a last-ditch effort to culture the virus responsible for the common cold to forestall the closure of the unit.

    The assignment, scheduled to last 3 years, paid off in 1960 with the publication of three papers describing common cold virus isolates in The Lancet. The Common Cold Unit lasted until 1990, when it was shut down...

    The Common Cold Unit was well-known for its uses of volunteers, some 20 000 of whom spent days or weeks taking part in trials after responding to advertisements such as “Free 10 Day Autumn or Winter Break: You May Not Win A Nobel Prize, But You Could Help Find a Cure for the Common Cold.” A character in Iris Murdoch's Under the Net met another character through volunteering there.

  • 3 November 2011 at 5:06pm
    semitone says:
    If there's a financial reward then people on lower incomes will always be more likely than wealthy people to take the money and sit around for a few weeks with that copy of War & Peace they'd always meant to get round to. This is because £3750 means a lot more to a person on welfare than it does to a millionaire. Obviously.

    If you don't want the poor to go first, perhaps you'd rather we paid each person a set percentage of their income(ensuring the same level of incentive for everyone, but we'd be paying rich people more) or perhaps the state could compel people to do it (London rioters, maybe?). Which alternative to the current system are you advocating, or are you just complaining about something you don't actually want to change?

  • 3 November 2011 at 6:15pm
    Jon Day says:
    A compulsory, randomly selected lottery, with 'compensation' paid to those for whom it goes wrong? This would have the added advantage of putting pressure on big pharma to think carefully about what drugs are really worth testing.

    • 3 November 2011 at 8:17pm
      semitone says: @ Jon Day
      I was kidding - but you're serious, I think. Like jury service, but it's 18 days in solitary?

  • 3 November 2011 at 10:45pm
    Jon Day says:
    'which drugs', I mean. Yes like jury service, or Borges' lottery in Babylon.

    • 4 November 2011 at 10:10am
      semitone says: @ Jon Day
      Yes, it made me think of Borges' lottery too. But if you want to focus the minds of big pharma executives, you need to limit the lottery pool just to them and their families. "Who goes first?", indeed.

  • 7 November 2011 at 4:19pm
    coolraoul says:
    I read this as an invitation to collect free money. If you did the same, be advised that a pollen allergy disqualifies you.

  • 7 November 2011 at 4:23pm
    coolraoul says:
    That comment wasn't intended as glib, by the way. Obviously Flu Camp is exploitative but the return for me would have been worth the investment.

  • 26 June 2012 at 11:28am
    flissdudley says:
    I am currently going through the flu camp process and have a blog about my experiences.
    Im really interested in the implications of clinical trials, aswell as the risk/compensation factor. Feel free to check it out...

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