Like millions of other Americans, when the news broke last month that Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine had been approved by the FDA, I rejoiced. This long nightmare was finally coming to an end, in the form of a much-anticipated vaccine that came straight out of Kalamazoo, Mich. — a place I had called home for 13 years.
Like so many of us, I choked up with emotion as I saw photos on social media of essential workers across the country — including some of my own friends and family members — holding up their vaccine card or showing their arm with a fresh Band-Aid. These incredible humans had given so much of themselves during this pandemic, and the notion that they would finally get some protection from this awful virus gave me goosebumps. Plus, by showing the world they weren’t afraid to get the vaccine, they were doing a great public service to those who may be skeptical about a novel vaccine or scared of being a “guinea pig.”
Looking at the vaccine roll-out plans in my state (Texas), I knew it would be quite a long time before it was my turn — late spring, early summer would probably be the soonest I’d be eligible. I figured that, until then, my family and I would just keep doing what we’ve been doing — masking up, social distancing, washing our hands, praying we don’t get it. And I held onto the hope that, under a new government administration, the roll-out would be more organized and move at a quicker pace.
But when I heard about a new, phase 3 clinical trial for the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine — already trialing in the UK — it immediately piqued my interest. Though I had never participated in a clinical trial before, I knew of a handful of people who had been a part of the Pfizer and Moderna ones. They had shared their experiences this fall, which made joining a study feel slightly less scary to me.
What’s more, the idea of contributing to science at such a historic moment felt exciting and important. I’m already a blood donor, an organ donor, and am in the process of getting on the bone marrow/stem cell registry — so this seemed like a natural next step. Equally important, as a Jewish woman who strives to lead her children by example, participating in the study would be an opportunity to promote not one but two Jewish values I hold dear: pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and tikkun olam (healing the world).
I read up on the specific vaccine, how it works, how it compares to the others (e.g., it just needs normal refrigeration — meaning, if approved, it would be more easily distributed in rural areas and in the developing world). I was sold, and my husband was, too. We went through the initial screening and learned that, if eligible for the study, there would be a 2 in 3 chance we would get the actual vaccine — pretty good odds! And although double-blind study participants won’t know whether they got the vaccine or placebo until the study is unblinded, we figured it was still worth the shot (pardon the pun!). Ultimately, either way, we’d get vaccinated at some point. And considering I hadn’t seen my family since Thanksgiving 2019 because of the pandemic, being vaccinated would help make travel to see them possible again. That thought alone gave me hope.
The night before our screening appointment, we explained what we were doing to our kids, ages 10 and 7. We told them that Mommy and Daddy were going to be part of a science experiment where we’d get a shot that may be the Covid-19 vaccine, and would be monitored for our reaction to the injection, as well as any Covid-19 symptoms.
“So wait, you could get the vaccine tomorrow?” my 7-year old son asked, mouth agape. It was hard for him to wrap his little mind around the fact that 1) his parents could maybe get one of the vaccines he’s heard so much about — the “cure” to this pandemic, in his mind, and 2) that we wouldn’t know if we had for a while. (Parents are supposed to know stuff!)
At noon, we arrived at our assigned research facility for an in-person screening to confirm our eligibility. Upon checking in, we received a mountain of paperwork to read. Among other things, we learned it would be a 26-month study that would require eight to 10 in-person visits for blood draws, wellness exams, and more — with four of the visits in the first three months. Fortunately, our neighbors have loosely formed a pandemic pod, and the kids regularly get together to play outside after school and on weekends, so childcare, at least, won’t be an issue.
My biggest concern going into a clinical study now — while there are two other approved vaccines out there — was the blinded aspect of the trial. Blind studies are necessary for scientific reasons, of course, but I worried that if we got the placebo, when would we know? Would we miss an opportunity to receive the actual vaccine? The use of placebos while approved vaccines are available is a legitimate ethical concern that has plagued clinical researchers, too. Fortunately, we learned that we would find out which injection we got when either the study is unblinded or we become eligible for the approved vaccine in our state — whichever comes first. That put my mind at ease.
After answering a gazillion questions, we had our vitals taken. We had four vials of blood drawn and received a Covid-19 test. Then, finally, we were officially enrolled in the study. I alternated between heaving a sigh of relief — we made it! — and feeling a strange new onset of guilt, realizing that although I had no clue which injection I’d get — vaccine or placebo — somehow we had “cut” the long line for the vaccine.
Just then, the head physician and director of the study at our location came in to introduce himself to us. He swiftly allayed any guilt I felt: He thanked us profusely for our participation, and, looking me in the eye, he said, “Clinical trials are the most ethical way to ‘move up the line,’ so to speak. Please know, you and all the participants in the study are doing us a service here.” I glanced over at my husband and smiled.
A few minutes later, the vaccine technician joined us, with two injection tubes — each with a 66.6% chance of being the Covid-19 vaccine. With our kids in school and numbers rising like crazy in Texas, I said a silent prayer for it to be the vaccine for us both.
She raised my sleeve and gave the jab in my upper arm. It felt like any other shot — just a slight pinch. I let out a deep exhale; there was no going back now! My husband went next. Minutes later, we were thanked again and sent to another room to learn how to use the daily symptoms monitoring app.
Then we were given a “goody bag” that included a thermometer (for daily temp checks), a plastic measuring tape (to measure the injection site if it gets red), a couple PCR tests (in case we have the onset of symptoms), as well as reading material and the number of the 24/7 trial phone line for questions. Now that we are in the study, any possible Covid-19 related symptoms will be addressed by the local research facility and its head physician.
We made our next appointment for 21 days later, and were each given cash. This part completely surprised me: Maybe it’s naïve to say, but having zero prior experience with clinical trials, I didn’t know that we’d be paid anything for participating — and certainly not on day one! As it turns out, we will be paid for each subsequent visit we make.
I had read up on possible symptoms, so I knew what could be in store for us: fever, fatigue, body aches, headaches, nausea, and more. I was pleasantly surprised to only experience some of them: That night and the next two days, my arm felt sore, tender to the touch, and a little itchy and warm where the injection was. I had a slight headache and felt a little off, but otherwise was fine. My husband felt a little soreness but that was really it. Since everyone reacts to shots differently, it doesn’t mean much of anything — but I do have a hunch that I got the actual vaccine, given my reaction.
Our kids have had fun guessing if we got the “real deal” or not. Time will tell. Our first injection was a week ago, and our next follow-up visit is in two weeks. We’ll continue to monitor ourselves on the app and check in as required by our participation in the study.
As a Type A person, it’s hard not know for sure which shot we got, at least for now. I have to just trust the science, and know that whether it’s the vaccine coursing through me or a placebo, I’m donating my body and my time to science for a better and healthier future for all of us. That knowledge alone makes it all worth it.
If you’re interested in learning more about joining a clinical trial, check cdc.org for more information.
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