COVID-19 vaccine trial participants recount their experiences

The development of COVID-19 vaccines took just nine months.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines received approval from the FDA for emergency-use in December 2020 after a record-fast vaccine development period of just nine months. The first vaccines were administered in the United States on Dec. 14. Before the vaccine was approved, though, there were people who agreed to participate in its trials.

Haleemon Anderson, a 65-year-old graduate student, received an automated call in July 2020 amidst the pandemic. Little did she know that the phone screening asking a few questions about her health was for a vaccine trial of the novel coronavirus.

“I think they had my data because I have done clinical trials before,”  Anderson said. She took a Covid-19 vaccine administered by CNS, an agency that executes clinical trials, in August 2020.

Anderson has taken sleep cycle tests and participated in other clinical trials in the past, but this was the first time she qualified for a vaccine trial. Soon after the phone screening, she visited the center for an appointment in their office in Long Beach.

At the waiting room, there were a few participants who turned up for the vaccine trial, but none of them spoke to each other. “Probably they were worried,” said Anderson.

After a few minutes of waiting, the staff collected her blood and urine samples. The results were out immediately.

“Without any ado, they administered the trial vaccine shot [the] next moment. I did not expect that,” said Anderson.

Dozens of research teams around the world worked to develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Many individuals volunteered to be part of this procedure and were offered to take the free trial vaccines.

CNS, in partnerships with major pharmaceutical sponsors, conducts clinical trials for new medications and treatments in the United States.

Anderson received two shots of the experimental vaccine over a period of two months.

With no clear information regarding the process, Anderson and others who volunteered for it had to just follow the company’s instructions, as and when it came.

She was paid for the vaccine and for participating in an online survey every week. She was paid $660 for participating in the trial.

“Now, I am told to report on a mobile app every week to record my temperature or any other symptom,” Anderson said. “Every time I do that survey, they pay me $5.”

The company told her the survey will continue at least until February and the study period is expected to end two years after the second vaccination.

The money “helps when I am out of work,” she said.

Anderson has had no side effects from the vaccine so far. “My friend thinks they just administered saltwater in me,” she joked.

As per Pfizer’s press release, 43,000 participants enrolled and were administered the trial vaccine. Pfizer, which developed the vaccine with its partner BioNTech, announced that its vaccine is 95% effective and has no serious side effects.

Another pharmaceutical company working on a COVID-19 vaccine was Moderna. Moderna is a biotechnology company that recently announced its preliminary analysis proves nearly 95 percent effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccine. 

Moderna is part of Operation Warp Speed, an initiative by the United States government to facilitate and accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The company received nearly $1 billion to support research and development. In Moderna’s study, 30,000 participants enrolled, out of which 25,654 have received their second vaccination.

James Pepin, chief technology officer at Clemson University, was one of those participants. He heard about the vaccine trials in a newspaper advertisement.

“That moment I felt it would be fun to get a vaccine shot administered,” Pepin said. “It was a good idea considering I am already 71.”

In August, he drove to the nearest center for the clinical trial in South Carolina. After they took Pepin’s blood samples, he was given the first shot. “It was painless,” Pepin said. He received a second dose in September.

His hopes to be protected from COVID-19 earlier than the rest of the world’s population were dashed. Unlike Anderson, Pepin developed a mild cold three weeks after the second vaccination. He reported the symptoms to the company.

He was then tested positive for the virus. The hospital took samples for a few tests and appointed two doctors to observe his health during the period.

“Initially, I didn’t even think it was COVID. I thought I just had a mild cold,” he said. “After a few days, I called the company to inform them about the symptom. Soon, they followed their protocol and multiple tests were done on me.”

Pepin’s health and medical bills were taken care of by the company. He remained in the hospital for two weeks and his treatment was done for free.  Later, he was also paid for physical visits or examinations. “Luckily I had only a mild case of COVID-19,” he said. Eight days later, Pepin tested negative for the virus.

After his negative report, the company continued to conduct blood tests and saliva tests for a few weeks to keep track of whether the virus went away.

“I thought I would not be infected by the virus. But I don’t know if I really had the vaccine. It may not be a real shot, instead [of] a placebo,” said Pepin.

Placebos are harmless, inactive substances made to look like the real medicine used in the clinical trial. They allow the investigators to learn whether the medicine being given works better or no better than ordinary treatment.

Some of the people Pepin befriended at the center in August had experienced mild reactions to the vaccine but did not test positive for COVID-19.

“Those were regular kinds of reactions after taking any shot. Sore arms, fever for about four to five hours, et cetera,” Pepin said.

Pepin’s third visit in October was weeks after he was treated for COVID-19 This time, they collected his blood sample.

This was the first time he participated in a clinical trial. “The entire process was just interesting,” Pepin said. “It was a fun thing to do. I am 71 and I am very healthy, so I didn’t feel freaked out.”

As countries rushed to manufacture vaccines for the virus, some people did not easily volunteer to be part of this process.

Anderson knew her family and friends would not support her decision to participate in this trial. But she didn’t tell anyone, not even her daughters about it until she got injected. “We are blacks and my family is generally, for some reason, skeptical about things; mainly because of their life experiences,” she said. “So many people around me have no trust in medicine.”

She participated in the trial because she was confident it would be safe. “Some of my family members can then see that this is harmless and a non-issue. That would assuage some of their fears and skepticism,” she said.

Anderson informed her sisters about it after the fact. She said they asked her why she would take the vaccine trial.

“I just told them somebody had to do it,” she said. “I was confident that they won’t put anything in the market and treat people like guinea pigs.”

Pepin was the only person in his family who decided to go for vaccine trials. “My wife didn’t wish to get the trial vaccine. She was not interested in this,” he said.

Both Pepin and Anderson said their next visit is now in February 2021. “They would now just call to check on me if I am still alive,” Pepin joked.

Until February, Pepin and Anderson need to only fill out a survey form on the app once a week.

“It was just easy and I have no side effects of the vaccine; not even a fever,” said Anderson. “I don’t know if I did this for mankind, but I volunteered because I felt somebody gotta do.”