The race for a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, officially termed COVID-19, is on. As the number of cases all over the world continues to rise, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions are scrambling to create an immunization shot that might halt the spread of the virus.
So on Monday, at 8 a.m., researchers at Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle began the first test in humans of an experimental vaccine for the new coronavirus, reports the Associated Press. While just four people were given the shot, in total 45 participants will receive it during this trial, which is meant to determine its safety, according to The New York Times. Other studies will assess how well it works. Even if all goes well, it'll likely take a year for the vaccine, which is made by Moderna, Inc., to become available.
The very first person to receive this shot was Jennifer Haller from Seattle, a 43-year-old operations manager at a small tech company, and the parent to two teens. She doesn't have the virus, but she volunteered to take part in the trial in order to help fight the disease.
She spoke over the phone to Refinery29 about what it feels like to be a human guinea pig in something so big that it’s brought the world’s largest economies to its knees and quarantined large swaths of people in major metropolitan cities across the globe, from Milan to San Francisco.
Refinery29: So how did you hear about this trial, and what made you sign up?
Jennifer Haller: “It was about two weeks ago that they put out a call for volunteers. A friend of mine posted it on Facebook, and I was looking for something to do that could be helpful, so I immediately filled out the survey. The next day I got a phone call to review my health history.
“I passed all those qualifications, and went in the next day to do a physical exam, a blood draw, and get more into my health history. And apparently, it was all good and then I got the call to get the first vaccine — which I did, Monday morning.”
How many rounds of the vaccine will you be getting?
“I'll be getting two rounds. The first one was Monday. I’ll be keeping a journal of any symptoms and my temperature and everything for the next two weeks. We'll do a phone follow-up today and tomorrow, and then in a week I'll go back in for a blood draw, a week after that I’ll go in for another blood draw. And then four weeks from Monday, I'll go in for the second dose [of the vaccine] — and I’ll repeat that whole process again. Then throughout the next 14 or 18 months I'll have a handful of visits for blood draws.”
Are you being paid for this?
“Technically they’re offering money. But you know, if I was doing it for money like you couldn’t really pay me enough to do this. So it’s just a token, and it’s not really a driver for me at all.”
Were you surprised they called you back? Were you under the impression that a lot of people signed up?
“Yeah, yeah. It was crazy. I don't know how many people signed up but I definitely had the impression that it was thousands. I was out to dinner with a friend when I got the call. I had just arrived and sat down when the phone rang. I actually asked, ‘Can I call you back later?’ You know, I had just sat down for dinner. And I could sense a little hesitation in their voice. They were like, ‘Yeah, you can call me back later…’ And I was like, ‘Oh okay, wait a minute, I should take this call, shouldn’t I?’ They said, ‘Nooo — but we may not get around to calling you back.’ So I took it. I'm so glad that I did.”
You’re based in Seattle, and obviously that’s been a hotspot for coronavirus cases. Do you have any friends with COVID-19, or can you share what it’s been like being out there with all of this going on?
“You know, I’m barely able to keep up with the newer reports. I’m definitely seeing friends of friends getting it. My parents live in Kenmore, which is very close to the original U.S. epicentre of Kirkland. And my mom is 70, and my stepdad is 85 with asthma. So he’s been staying home for two and a half weeks now. I’m really concerned about their safety, and it’s quite overwhelming.
“But one thing that I really would like to talk about is, you know — I’m going to be okay. My family is going to be okay. We have the resources we need to weather this. I have a deep concern for so many Americans that don’t have the privilege that my family and I have.
“Last Thursday I was able to go to Costco and spend $250 USD on things I think I might need for the next few weeks. And even that simple act, a lot of people can’t do that. People are losing their jobs, especially in the restaurant industry, the arts community. It’s devastating, and it’s going to be devastating. And I worry about the physical health impact for people and also the mental health impact it’s going to have.”
I would probably sign up for a trial too, but if it came down to actually getting the shot I might get cold feet! Were you finding yourself nervous at all? Did your friends and family express any hesitation?
“Some friends were definitely concerned. I explained that the vaccine uses messenger RNA, which means throughout the whole trial I’ll never be exposed to the actual virus. Helping people understand that has been good. But you know, there’s a 45-page waiver that you have to sign, right? And yes — this has never been tested on humans, so there’s a complete unknown.
“But you know, my understanding is that it’s similar to what they’ve done with MERS and SARS, and that the good that can come from it is so much greater than anything that can happen to me, even if it was the worst. I’m a positive person and I don’t really focus on the potential downsides here. I wasn’t scared. My friends were like, ‘You need to be a little more scared about it.’”
What else do you know about the vaccine, the risks, what’s in it, etc.?
“Yeah, you know that’s really a better question for the scientists, obviously. The potential risk is that the vaccine doesn’t work. I’m not doing it in the hopes of protecting myself, I’m not expecting that. Right now, they’re just trying to figure out what dosage they need to give for it to be effective.”
Were you told to take any additional precautions, besides what’s already being recommended, such as avoiding gatherings of more than 50 people?
“Nothing different is requested of me as far as being part of the study. Just to do everything everyone else is following. Again, because it doesn’t expose me to the actual virus there’s no risk to anyone around me.”
How are you feeling now?
“I’m feeling great. The shot itself was pretty painless, very similar to a flu shot — and surprisingly my arm is not even very sore. I can feel it a little bit today. But besides that I’m feeling great, very normal.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.