Researchers around the world are racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Russia has approved one despite the lack of adequate safety information, and America’s president is pinning reelection hopes on his ability to lean on the FDA to approve a vaccine before November.
I’m one of the few people my age who aren’t very worried about catching COVID-19 because I’ve had the vaccine – one of the experimental and not-yet-approved vaccines – as part of the effort to determine if they are indeed both safe and effective.
For nearly 25 years, I’ve exercised my scientific interest by serving on an independent review board that oversees clinical trials for experimental drugs and medical devices.
Our job is to become familiar with the drug or device and how it’s to be used in the study, with primary attention to making sure appropriate safety measures are in place and that participants are adequately informed of the potential risks and benefits.
I decided it might be enlightening to be on the other side of the equation and experience being a subject in a clinical trial. What better time to volunteer than when 30,000 people were needed for a Phase 3 trial of one of the leading candidates for a vaccine against COVID-19?
Reading the informed consent form as a subject rather than an analyst was a new experience because it was happening to me. It carefully explained what has also been publicly reported, that this particular vaccine contains a string of messenger RNA that codes for a protein in the infamous spikes the virus uses to invade human cells.
Ideally, my body would respond by obediently making copies of the spike protein (not the full virus). Just as quickly, however, my immune system would kick in and start churning out antibodies to disable the protein.
Studies have shown that even when the number of antibodies abates, the body’s T-cells remember the spike protein and kick into high gear to produce more antibodies if it should show up again.
The vaccine is administered through two injections given three weeks apart, a way of priming the antibody pump more effectively.
I knew I had a 50-50 chance of getting either the experimental vaccine or an injection of saline solution. Afterward, I was to keep a daily electronic diary of any side effects.
The study is blinded, meaning neither the investigators nor the subjects know whether they’re getting the vaccine or the placebo; only the person giving the injection knows.
But by the morning after my first injection, I had no doubts I’d gotten the real thing because I felt like I had the flu. Not much fever, but a full measure of headache, body aches and general malaise. I didn’t feel like doing anything more productive than binge-watching car restoration shows and napping on the couch.
By the next morning, I felt better, and that afternoon I cut the grass (that’s Southern for “mowed the lawn”).
Three weeks later, I repeated the process: injection, sore arm by midnight, a day and a half of flu symptoms, then back to work.
Not everyone has the same side effects, of course. Some people don’t have any apparent symptoms. I never feel sick after ordinary flu shots, but this one rocked me on my heels. Still, I was happy as a clam to be sick because I knew that meant my body was ramping up an all-out attack against a potential COVID-19 infection, at least of that strain.
Sometimes, we have to feel bad in order to feel better. We have to experience discomfort to work toward comfort. We have to know pain to get to a better place.
That’s why I’ve also been in pursuit of another vaccine, participating in webinars and discussion groups regarding the insidious virus of racism. I grew up in a rich stew of racist attitudes, and there was no way to avoid being infected.
From the time I got to college, I’ve been working to overcome it, but no pill will cure embedded racism, and no vaccine beyond a changed society that will prevent it.
Confronting our internal belief systems in community with people who have been the targets of our prejudice is not an easy thing, but inviting the discomfort is a needed step toward building mental and emotional antibodies to viral thoughts of ethnic superiority.
It’s sad but true that those most in need of a cure for racism are the least likely to seek it, but perhaps the influence of friends who are seeking healthier attitudes can encourage them. Admitting past wrongs can be a bitter pill, but it’s a necessary step toward getting better.
It sounds like repentance that leads to salvation. Where have I heard that before?