As soon as it became clear how quickly coronavirus was spreading across the world, and how deadly it was, the race for the vaccine was on. As of now, there are as many as 115 vaccine programs in the works, reports the journal Science Translational Medicine. One of the first in the world to be tested on humans was created by Moderna, Inc, a biotech company in Massachusetts. One month ago, that vaccine was given to the first set of human subjects as part of a safety trial.
The first person to receive the Moderna coronavirus vaccine was Jennifer Haller of Seattle; she spoke to Refinery29 the day after getting the shot. Around a month later, on Tuesday, April 14, she received the second and final dose. We took the opportunity to check in with her. She answered our questions about what symptoms she experienced as a result of the vaccine, and how she's handling all the attention she received after news of her participation in the Moderna trial went public.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
Refinery29: Thank you so much for getting on the phone with me again. I'm so glad we were able to catch up. So tell me, what has the last month been like?
Jennifer Haller: "As far as side effects from the vaccine, I've had basically, zero. My arm was sore the day after the first shot, and my arm is sore again today after getting the second shot. But I’ve experienced no other side effects, which has been great. I've just been living my life as normal as possible, since I'm under the same restrictions as everybody else — no special restrictions from participating in the trial."
Did you have to go in for any blood tests or anything in the interim between these two vaccines?
"Yes. After the first one, I went back one week later for a blood draw. That one was to just check my overall health and make sure that I was doing well. Two weeks after the first vaccination, I went in for another blood draw. That one was to check my overall health as well, but also to check for any antibodies that may have been produced. [Antibodies would indicate an immune response to the vaccine, which would be a positive sign.]
"As of now, even the study doctors don't know what the results of the antibody production was, so neither do I. My understanding is similar, that this first phase is just to determine safety. And in the second phases they'll focus more on efficacy. I don't believe I will know any results until they are published publicly.
"I got the second dose of the vaccine yesterday, and I’ll go through a repeat of four weeks ago: I keep a log for the next eight days of my temperature and any symptoms. There will be a phone call today and tomorrow to just do a check in, get some vitals from me over the phone. In a week, I'll go back for a blood draw, and in two weeks, I'll go back for a second blood draw.
"Then from there, over the next 12 months I'll have three more visits for blood draws.
"But I’m done — there are no more doses of the vaccine."
Has being part of the trial affected your day-to-day at all? Does it feel different knowing that you've taken part in this trial or not really?
"No, I don't presume any kind of inoculation or anything from the trial. I'm conducting myself the same as if I wasn't in the trial, just taking the same precautions as everyone else."
I'm based in New York City, where the vibe is still pretty anxious. What is it like in your area, in Seattle? Are you still pretty locked down?
"Yes. In the last week or so, we've seen that our state has generally done a good job on the stay-at-home mandate. We leveled off on new cases. We dismantled our field hospital last week, and sent it back to the federal government for them to redeploy and returned a bunch of ventilators.
"So, our state is feeling cautiously optimistic about the success of the stay-at-home order. But we’re certainly not out of the woods. I don't think we're near lifting the stay-at-home order. We’re feeling pretty lucky, especially seeing what’s happening in areas of our country that didn’t take it as serious."
After the first time we spoke, I noticed people reacted almost with a sense of relief to be hearing something positive. And not just that they were testing a vaccine, but that you and the other participants in the trial had volunteered and were taking this step to help the greater community. What was it like to be faced with that kind of overwhelmingly positive reaction when the news of you being part of the vaccine trial began getting around?
"Yeah, I think a big piece of me wanting to do this is because I have a lot of privilege: I have a secure job, friends and family nearby, plenty in savings. Being part of a trial like this is something that a lot of people can't do because they're under so many more stressors, and have so many more immediate concerns. So it was important to me to find something to do that others necessarily couldn't. By that I mean — to use my privilege to do something a little more risky than what others could do.
"And all the praise was difficult at first... I did receive a ton of love and thanks and prayers from thousands of people on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and all of that. It was very overwhelming and I didn't know what to do with that. It didn't feel right to me to have all this praise because I'm just one of many that are participating in a vaccine trial. I'm just one small piece of this effort.
"So I didn't know what to do with all that. And I talked to a trusted advisor, a spiritual leader, that I've turned to in the past. She said, ‘If somebody criticizes you or is mean to you, it's because they're projecting or they have something else going on in their life. So you don't take that personally.’ And she helped me understand that this is just the flip side of that. That praise is also not to be taken personally, and it's not about me. It's about people looking for hope and some kind of positive future. And so that really helped me release and pass on the positive messages I was receiving.
"And I wanted to pass it on to those who were actually putting their lives on the line here. The ones who are working to feed their family and keep their housing. People that are working minimum wage jobs, working on the farms or driving trucks or cleaning hospitals — all those who are now termed essential workers. Those are the real people that are making sacrifices and going through some scary times."
Have there been any stories or news you've heard that's touched you in the same way that people were being touched by your story? Has there been anything you've heard that you've just been like, "Wow, I can't believe someone's doing that or people are doing that?"
"I don't have specific stories, but I am thinking a lot about undocumented workers right now. My birthday was just last week and for the past couple of years I’ve done a fundraiser on Facebook. This year I picked a non-profit to support undocumented workers.That's a group that has completely fallen through the cracks and received zero help from the federal government, certainly.
"They have the hardest jobs in our country, I believe, and critical jobs. And so that was something that was important to me to support and to recognize.
"I don’t know how to say it, but I know my family and my neighbors are going to look back on this time and be like, 'Wow, wasn't that magical? We got to slow down. We got to spend some quality time with our family. We got to connect.' And I'm really kind of embarrassed by that, because half of our country, even prior to this crisis, was living paycheck to paycheck.
"So I hope, when I'm doing interviews, when people are hearing my story, what I really hope is that it inspires them to think beyond themselves. It’s natural, when we're in crisis, to go inward to protect ourselves and to protect our family. But I really hope that this can inspire people to step outside of that and to think bigger. And I hope, certainly more broadly, that this is a wake-up call for our country to recognize the inequality that has always been there and to take some important steps to meet everybody's basic human needs: universal healthcare, paid sick time, a livable minimum wage, I could go on…"
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.