I volunteered to take part in a Covid-19 vaccine trial. I wish I could say I did it to help hasten the defeat the coronavirus or to further science. But I really just wanted a chance to get a vaccine as soon as possible.
As the virus began to grip the nation earlier this year, I heard the terrible accounts of its fearsome effects: People feeling mildly ill, suddenly failing and struggling for air, needing ventilators to breathe for them.
I knew that I had some of the factors that put people at high risk for having severe cases of Covid-19: people of color, older than 60, asthma, high blood pressure. In Washington, D.C., where I live, Covid-19 cases climbed as March and April slid into May.
That’s what really led me to start searching for vaccine trials I could participate in. I completed an online application in July, for which I listed my medical history and said whether I had recently been in large gatherings — presumably an indication of whether I could be likely to encounter the virus.
As it turned out, I had been in large crowds — everyone wearing masks and trying to distance themselves with varying degrees of success — just the week before when I had shot a story for “PBS NewsHour” on the reopening of the Smithsonian.
The response to my application was an email telling me my information was being sent to the research site closest to where I live: George Washington University, where infectious disease specialist David Diemert was recruiting volunteers for a Phase 3 trial of an mRNA vaccine made by Moderna Therapeutics.
That’s when self-interest turned into piqued interest.
I knew a little — very little, actually — about mRNA vaccine technology from my brother-in-law, Rick Myers, a geneticist who runs the nonprofit HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala., and who formerly directed the pioneering Stanford Human Genome Center when it contributed to the sequencing of the human genome.
With his characteristic infectious enthusiasm, Rick had told me of the promise that the as-yet-unproven technology held. So it was with heightened eagerness that took a phone call from a woman saying she was calling from the GWU Covid-19 vaccine trial.
I had expected to answer a bunch of screening questions. But her only inquiry was whether I was still interested. I was, so the study coordinator immediately made an appointment for the first of two injections.
It turns out the very things that make me uneasy about the prospect of contracting Covid-19 were some of the things that made me an attractive candidate. The coordinator said they wanted participants of color and wanted to see if the vaccine was safe for someone with asthma and high blood pressure.
That’s how I became Patient 232 — the 232nd to get the experimental vaccine in the GWU clinical trial — on a Tuesday morning.
Before the injection, I signed a 21-page informed consent form I had previously been sent and studied. It detailed what I should expect over the 25-month study, including the visits with study doctors — even house calls if needed — should I contract Covid-19. It also listed what would be expected of me: Periodic trips to the clinic to draw blood for antibody tests, reporting any side effects on an app downloaded onto my phone, and answering periodic telephone checks on my health.
I was a bit surprised to learn that I would get small payments for participating: $20 to cover travel to and from each clinic visit, $100 for each vaccine injection, $15 for each phone check-in, $5 for each entry on the phone app, and a $50 bonus if I participate for all 25 months.
I asked Diemert, the study director, whether I should do anything differently in the coming days. The answer was an emphatic “No.” I should continue doing what I was doing, which, in my case meant working from home and wearing a mask when I did things like running errands, walking my dog (which I used to joke was my daily Covid test for loss of the sense of smell), or went out to shoot a story.
“If everyone sits at home and never goes out and no one gets sick, the trial will fail,” he said.
It was a point about a vaccine trial that had never occurred to me: The goal wasn’t for everyone to stay healthy. The goal was for some people to get sick so they could see the difference between those who got the vaccine and those who got the placebo.
Diemert left to meet another participant and a colleague did a physical exam, then swabbed me for a PCR coronavirus test, and drew blood to test for antibodies; a positive result on either test would have eliminated me from the trial.
At that point, everyone disappeared while I waited for my shot — either the vaccine or a placebo — to arrive from the pharmacy downstairs. None of the study’s physicians could be there because they said they could tell what it was from looking at the vial, since the vaccine is more viscous than the placebo.
After 30 minutes or so, a nurse arrived with a large manila envelope bearing my initials, the number “232” and a large, handwritten direction: “UNBLINDED STAFF ONLY.”
Bearing in mind Diemert’s description of the real vaccine as “viscous,” I was hoping I’d feel my arm get heavy, something I felt in another part of my anatomy when I once got a gamma globulin shot.
After waiting for another 30 minutes to see if there were any immediate side effects, I headed home.
I had been warned I might feel sick after getting the injection. I felt fine through bedtime, which disappointed me because it made me think I had gotten the placebo.
The next morning, though, I was paradoxically heartened to begin feeling feverish, fatigued, and achy — like I had a mild case of the seasonal flu. It felt good to feel bad. It wasn’t enough to keep me from my daily routine, but it did persist. I felt a little better every day, but it wasn’t until Sunday that I was back to normal.
When I went in for my second shot on a Tuesday about a month later, I told a doctor that I was trying hard not to draw any conclusions from the side effects about whether I got the real thing or the placebo.
She laughed. “I don’t know why not,” she said. “I certainly am.”
She also warned me that reactions to the second shot tended to be greater than to the first one. She suggested I try to get ahead of it with an analgesic when I got home.
Even though I did — and I don’t discount the power of suggestion — it didn’t take long for every muscle and joint in my body to ache and my temperature to hit 99.9. I was in bed and asleep by about 7 p.m. and didn’t wake up until about 6 a.m. the next day.
But just as the effects came on faster, they resolved faster. This time I was feeling fine by Thursday.
Most days, I don’t give a thought to being a guinea pig in a vaccine trial. But I certainly did last Sunday evening, when a senior producer I work with forwarded an embargoed news release: Moderna was reporting an efficacy rate of 94.5% for its vaccine — the vaccine I that hope had twice been injected into my arm.
My excitement grew when I read that Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, had said the results were so strong that they felt an ethical obligation to offer the vaccine to the placebo group as soon as possible.
That meant I could soon know with certainty whether I got the real vaccine and, if I hadn’t, have a chance to get it without waiting for months.
I’m not sure how I would have felt if the vaccine was only slightly effective, or wasn’t effective at all. Fortunately, that’s not something I need to consider. Given my fears about getting Covid-19, I’m happy that I have already gotten Moderna’s effective vaccine, or will get it soon. But I’m also a little bit proud that my participation in the trial furthered science, and may have helped put the coronavirus in check.
John Yang is a national correspondent for “PBS NewsHour,” where he discussed his experience with the show’s anchor, Judy Woodruff.
Mr. Yang, the article was an enjoyable read. If you don’t mind, could you send me an email? I’m performing a follow up study at the NIH looking at the antibody response in vaccinated individuals. If you or anyone reading is interested, send me an email.
My experience is much the same, although I had absolutely no side effects from the shot, and we all know what that means. Subsequent visits included a wink to the investigators, and thinking “I know that you know that I know.” I felt the staff at the site were very professional. I tried to get others to volunteer but no luck. I a glad to be part of the study. (and am anxiously awaiting to get the real vaccine.)
Thanks for the first-person, professional & informed story. It’s useful to me because the flu and pneumonia vaccines can lay me low for a few days. I’ll hope we get more good information as the vaccines are disbursed next year among the public. Getting the shots could take some careful planning for many of us.
This article was very interesting. It answered my wondering what it was like to be a volunteer in the studies. I give Mr Yang a lot of credit for taking on the risk. I am very glad for him that he has remained well. Thank you. We will all benefit from your participation.
I enjoyed reading your comments. I volunteered for the same trial, through a clinical research company in Savannah, for much the same reasons. I am firmly convinced, however, that I received the placebo as I didn’t experience so much as a tingle from either of the injections. I am proud, though, to have volunteered and to have been a part of this historical process.
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