Young man sneezing outdoors
Photo: Colin Hawkins / Getty Images

What It’s Like Getting Paid to Be a Human Lab Rat

Getting infected with a virus can be lucrative – at least for some.

If you’re on social media, chances are you’ve seen adverts for paid clinical trials. These trials – particularly the enigmatic FluCamp – often promise generous pay-outs for what seem like relatively bearable, if unpleasant, bouts of illness or treatments. Instagram-optimised advertising and boasts including “a PS4 in your quarantine room!” only add to the alluring promise of thousands of pounds in compensation.


Given the ongoing cost-of-living crisis in the UK, these trials are an enticing money-maker, particularly for students and young professionals. Many of them also market themselves as virtually risk-free (convenient!). But is it all as easy as it seems? Is it really £4,000-odd for lying in a bed for two weeks? Is all this relentless advertising and encouraging people to monetise their health a bit icky when many face serious financial hardship?

“At the time I was working on a temporary sales contract that was due to end and it seemed like a great opportunity to get a chunk of money to act as a reliable cushion, without dipping into my savings,” says Freddie Broadbent, 30, who took part in FluCamp a few years ago: “After finishing my trial in full, I received two separate payments amounting to £3,000, for around ten days of quarantine.”

Florence Ainslie, 23, recently took part in FluCamp after she “kept seeing lots of adverts on Instagram and Facebook”. She was sold once she saw the promised compensation and documented the process on TikTok.

“The money definitely made me apply,” she tells VICE. “During lockdown I didn't really have a proper job. We originally got travel expenses of £20 for our first visit and then around £50 for our second. For the actual trial, which was 11 days, I got paid around £3,600.” Ainslie also adds that this compensation was exempt from income tax. 


If the sums advertised by places like FluCamp are real, what’s the catch? It seems there isn’t one, as long as you can get through the numerous screening rounds and tests.

FluCamp is what’s known as a “challenge trial”, where participants stay in FluCamp’s facility for extended quarantines and testing. FluCamp, run by hVIVO, tests vaccines and antiviral drugs for flu (obviously) as well as other respiratory illnesses. Participants are given the virus and treatment, or placebos, then monitored over a series of days to see how they respond.

Being deliberately infected with a virus may sound scary, but Andrew Catchpole from hVIVO tells VICE that they only recruit participants whose health records show the illness is unlikely to have serious effects. On top of that, they carry out their own general health assessments and screenings, including blood tests. Catchpole also says it isn’t just physical health they screen for, trying to ensure that participants’ mental health can withstand a two-week period of isolation is also part of the process.

While these screenings are reassuring, it does mean that your chances of actually taking part in a FluCamp are vastly reduced. “It definitely isn't easy to get through the trial stage,” says Broadbent. “I know a few friends I recommended the trial to, who got rejected because of failing the blood test or other health/lifestyle factors.” Something as minor as having recently had a cold or flu can cause you to fail.


FluCamp saw a spike in applicants during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Catchpole suggests that the wide publication of the process of vaccine creation, as well as altruistic motives, inspired people to apply. (Maybe clinical trials serving as a “legitimate” reason to get out of the house during those long months helped, too.)

Since the relaxation of lockdown restrictions and the post-pandemic return to relative normalcy, Catchpole says there’s been a huge drop-off in the number of applicants. With students and young professionals being FluCamp’s main demographic, as well as being set to be particularly hard hit by the cost of living crisis, time will tell whether the prospect of thousands of pounds and an escape from the daily grind will tempt more to sign up.

FluCamp isn’t the only clinical trial program bombarding social media with ads. Those for eczema and asthma treatments, contraception, and other new drugs pop up often. In the UK alone, there are just over a hundred companies who run or facilitate clinical trials, with the clinical research industry worth over £2.7 billion per year, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Research. Over 1.3 million people participated in some form of clinical research in England alone in 2020-21. 


So is taking part in medical trials a viable side hustle? Maybe, but you’ll probably have to widen your search beyond FluCamp and re-evaluate what sort of trials you’d be willing to do. 

One participant, who would prefer to remain anonymous, took part in a Parexel trial for an experimental drug and says they were compensated £1,000 for their inpatient stay and a further £5,000 for completing all the follow-up visits in the three months that followed. Again, insane numbers when you think of the hours involved. But what about the risks? 

A spokesperson for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) made it clear, when asked via email, that “no clinical trial is without risk” and that, despite the “rigorous protocols” that are in place, it is simply not possible to know every possible outcome of a trial – particularly when it comes to testing new drugs. Trials involving already licensed drugs or treatments that are simply conducting further research on doses or applications present the lowest risk, said the spokesperson. However, if you are determined to take part in a comparatively high-risk trial, MHRA recommend you confirm that it “has been authorised by the MHRA and has received a positive opinion from a Research Ethics Committee”. That way you “can be assured that all necessary reviews have taken place”.


With FluCamp, the risks are clearly explained to participants, who must be able to give fully informed consent as dictated by the ethics committees. Both Broadbent and Ainslie said they were comfortable with the risks, with Ainslie saying, “They also made it clear that if I wanted to drop out at any time that would be OK; however, I wouldn't get the full compensation.” The participant in the Parexel trial was even more candid about the potential risks: “My logic is: People are putting god knows what up their noses every weekend. At least this is in a safe medically controlled environment.” 

Challenge trials and those with inpatient stays often have to pay so much because you are at their facilities for 24 hours a day, so paying you for your time quickly adds up – even if you are asleep for half of it. On the other hand, trials that only involve short visits and follow-up appointments will not pay anywhere near as much, and are in fact often only legally able to offer minimum wage plus travel expenses, explains Meri Beckwith from tech start-up Lindus Health. These trials might involve things like testing the effects of supplements, the impact of regular exercise on various long-term health conditions like diabetes and asthma, or even testing drugs and medications – like this study into ketamine’s effects on mental health, which Beckwith himself participated in. The flexible participation combined with meagre pay means that these sorts of trials are, perhaps, a good night-out fund if you’re a student, but aren’t good for much more.


Lindus Health’s stated mission is to improve the clinical trials industry by making it easier for patients to take part, as well as trying to change the way participants are paid. Beckwith says that most people who sign up to clinical trials are young white men, and that there’s a particular lack of participants from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Ultimately, this can lead to treatments and medications never having been tested on women or non-white people before they are released to market. When Lindus Health partnered with Oxford University on an investigation into barriers to participation in clinical trials in non-white communities, they found that lack of appropriate compensation played a significant role.

So what about these longer trials? Could they be a good way of getting additional income? Maybe. £3,000 to £4,000 is certainly nothing to sniff at – it might even pay a couple month’s rent. But while there are a lucky few who have been returning FluCamp participants, entry is by no means guaranteed – no matter how desperate you might be to escape the outside world for a few weeks.

Once you’ve been infected with the virus they use to test the vaccine or anti-viral drugs, you will develop corresponding antibodies. This will therefore make you ineligible for future trials, which rely on participants with no previous antibodies – unless, of course, you can find one investigating a different virus. And you’d still have to go through the same rigorous health screening before reaching the quarantine period and the big money.

These longer trials can be lucrative gigs if you can get them – but they definitely aren’t something to pack in the nine-to-five for.