“I will be injected with a substance designed to provoke the same antibody response in my body as novel coronavirus—and I don’t know exactly what will happen to me when that occurs.”
On Monday, April 13, I’m getting a COVID-19 vaccine. If you’re thinking, “There is no vaccine right now,” you’re right. I’m one of 45 volunteers who was selected to be part of a clinical trial with The University of Washington. So I will help determine if a) this potential vaccine works and b) it’s safe. To be clear: this means I will be injected with a substance designed to provoke the same antibody response in my body as novel coronavirus—and I don’t know exactly what will happen to me when that occurs.
Why did I decide to risk my health to participate in a trial for an untested vaccine?
About six weeks ago, I was feeling what I think a lot of people are experiencing right now: I wanted to make an impact during this terrible time—to do something beyond ordering delivery from local restaurants to try to help keep them afloat (although I do that, too).
I have a master of public health degree, and a former professor of mine posted a call for volunteers to be part of this clinical trial on Facebook. Researchers were looking for people ages 18 to 55 who didn’t have serious medical problems to opt into a screening process for participants—and I happen to meet all of the initial qualifications: I’m young (30), I’m healthy. So I filled out the short form and didn’t know if anything would come of it.
Because of my background in public health, I’m a huge proponent of the importance of vaccines.
Early on, there were a lot of comparisons between the novel coronavirus and the flu, and I think that a lot of people misunderstood what it means for an easily communicable virus we have no way of preventing to impact a community.
We do lose a lot of people to the flu every year, but we also have vaccines for the flu—and that gives partial protection to the community. This virus is entirely new (which is why it’s called novel coronavirus). There’s more of an understanding about how serious this virus is now than there was even a few weeks ago, but we’re all still learning more about it.
Signing up for the trial got me pretty excited—the science nerd in me really came out. Getting a vaccine ready for clinical trial is a tedious process, so the fact that researchers feel ready to test it on humans is impressive. As thrilled as I was to sign up, I assumed that I wouldn’t hear anything in response. I figured that tons of people were applying, and I also didn’t know how long the link had been active—would anyone even look at my submission?
I was surprised when I got a phone call about 10 days later. The research coordinator dove right into info about the trial, making sure that I knew I was applying to be given a new vaccine for an entirely new virus. I answered a couple dozen questions about my health and family history. Luckily for me, the research institute running the trial is also my healthcare provider, so they could easily access my health records, which I believe streamlined the process. After 20 minutes, I was told that they’d review my records and get in touch in a few days if everything looked good.
Three days later, they called back to schedule an in-person screening with a nurse practitioner the following week. That’s when I thought, “Oh, this could be real.”
It was the first time I felt a blip of nervousness.
At the in-person appointment, I answered more questions about my health (I had to discuss things you wouldn’t even think were related to immunity, like the hip injury I had in seventh grade). I had blood drawn and was given a physical. A week later, I got a call back: my labs were good and I was officially cleared to participate in the trial. I have seven appointments set up for the following nine weeks, and then I’ll have three-, six-, and 12-month follow-up visits down the line. I’ll get paid $100 for each.
I was sent a 20-page consent form. It outlined the potential side effects. Most of the risks are minor things like soreness or tiny red bumps at the injection site (much like any vaccine). There’s always the risk of infection with any blood draw. Mild, flu-like symptoms are another possible side effect, so I’m prepared to feel blah and achy for a day or two as my body builds a response as a result of the vaccine.
It’s the last bullet point on the form that’s a little scary: This has never been tested on humans before.
However, I’ll say this: While, yes, something bizarre and dangerous could happen, that’s why the screening process is so thorough. The researchers know I don’t have any allergies to medications and no history of adverse reactions to vaccines, so there’s not too much reason to believe something scary will happen when I receive my first injection next week. Also, I know that they began giving the vaccine to the first round of study participants two weeks ago, so if something had really gone haywire, they would’ve notified me and I wouldn’t still be involved.
Monday, I’m going in for my first round of the vaccination, which is an injection. The appointment is scheduled for three hours. While the shot will be quick, I have to stick around for monitoring to ensure I don’t have any immediate reactions. They’ll also call to check up on me the first and second day after the shot. For six days, I’ll take my temperature daily and keep a paper log, which I’ll then bring back with me for my follow-up visit a week later.
I’ll receive the second and final round of the vaccine a month after that.
In this trial, the vaccine does not include any part of the live virus.
The injections of the vaccine are supposed to initiate the same antibody response in me as if I were infected with the novel coronavirus—which, in theory, should protect me from getting the virus should I be exposed to it down the line. They will compare my initial blood tests from before the vaccine to after the vaccine to check for these antibodies.
Later follow-up visits will involve drawing blood samples to check for this antibody response. The way the study is set up, each participant is randomly assigned to receive one of three different dose amounts or strengths of the vaccine. That’s the only weird part—I could get a small, medium, or large dose, and it may or may not make a difference. And none of them may work at all.
Up until now, I haven’t had second thoughts or fears about participating in the trial.
I feel at ease about the whole thing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if on Monday morning I get nervous before going in.
From what I understand, there is very little risk of me becoming sicker than if I had the infection itself (because the vaccine does not contain any live version of the virus). There’s also a risk that this vaccine won’t work, so I could still contract COVID-19 while it’s prevalent here in Seattle and fall ill that way.
But that’s a risk we all have right now, to some degree or another, so I’m not particularly concerned about that either (especially since I’m already doing what I can to limit my exposure to any potential infection). In that case, I’d be more disappointed than anything because it’d mean they have to start all over with designing a vaccine for the public.
If the vaccine does work in this trial, I’m not even sure when to expect results, as they’ll continue to check my blood for antibodies for a year. I don’t know when they’d roll it out to the general public, either—there are just too many unknowns.
The standard timeline I keep reading about for any vaccine to be in production is 12 to 18 months, because even if this one works, then they have to make sure it can be safely administered to people who don’t fall under the qualifications for this study. That means it would have to be tested on kids, people older than 55, and people with chronic medical and mental health conditions. So we’re still really early in the process.
I haven’t told many people that I’m participating in the trial. My mom doesn’t even know.
I swear I’ll tell her (hi, mom!). I didn’t hide it from her on purpose. She’s a physician who lives across the country from me, and I know she’ll understand. Many of my friends are in public health, so they get it, too.
Early on in the process, my boyfriend asked me if part of the reason why I want to do this is for the possible protection from COVID-19. I don’t think that’s it. I’m not looking for personal protection, but I hope that that is what happens. If that’s the case, then it may indicate that the vaccine could work for other people—and that’s really what I’m hoping will come out of all of this.