Placebo 50:50

How I gambled on a Covid-19 Vaccine trial and lucked out.

During one of the daily Covid briefings late last summer, Nicola Sturgeon called for volunteers to take part in Covid-19 vaccine trials by registering on the NHS COVID-19 Vaccine Research Registry portal .  Oh, I thought ‘science needs me’ so I registered my interest in volunteering and forgot about it. It turns out that I was one of over 390,000 people who have registered and signed-up to be contacted about taking part in COVID-19 vaccine studies.

I received an email in September inviting me to take part in the Novavax vaccine trial. I completed some initial online screening questions and by October I was on my way to my first appointment with the vaccine trial team based in the New Lister Building at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

The New Lister Building, Glasgow Royal Infirmary

Like me, more than 25 percent of volunteers in the trial were over 65, while a large proportion of volunteers had underlying medical conditions generally representative of the population. The Novavax study is the largest ever double blind, placebo-controlled trial to be undertaken in the UK. I was one of over 15,000 participants recruited in just over two months to trials taking place across 35 UK research sites. This was the first phase 3 study for the US-based biotechnology firm Novavax’s vaccine anywhere in the world.

On that first visit, I was screened again and, following a mini-medical was good to go. There were reams of paperwork to be read and consent forms to be signed as well as plenty of opportunities for discussion with the friendly research team. After being taught how to self-administer a covid test I was given my first injection.  I was asked to download an app to record my daily post-jag symptoms for the next seven days, then sent home with a thermometer and a pack of covid test kits in case I developed symptoms.  In this blind trial, I had a 50:50 chance of receiving the study vaccine or a saline placebo. I had zero symptoms in the week that followed and three weeks later the whole thing was repeated following my second dose.  Again I logged no post-jag symptoms.  So far so good and I was back again in January and February 2021 for more blood tests.

Folk were congratulating me for volunteering and I began to reflect on my motives.  Why did I drift into a Covid-19 vaccine trial? 

Yes – I have read the narratives and counter-narratives about the pandemic: it’s just like normal flu/no it’s not; the death rate is not as high as it is made to appear/Oh yes it is; a lot of people who have died of Covid would have died anyway/no they wouldn’t.  How can they develop vaccines and gain approval so quickly; who is funding the science; aren’t big pharma and its scientists just in it for big profits (well yes so what’s new?); don’t past histories of unscrupulous and unethical medical experiments and clinical trials show big pharma are not to be trusted? I hear you.   Since the end of World War II however, vaccination programmes have succeeded in eradicating or greatly reducing the incidence and impact of a whole range of serious and often fatal diseases. I have had every jag going my whole life as have my children. So for me, jags are good. The chance to help develop a new vaccine for this awful disease, despite how contested the territory is, was a no brainer.

Like everyone else, for the last year I have watched the spread and impact of this awful disease.  I have lived with the anxiety of catching it, feared that those I love would catch it and known people who have tragically died from it. Lockdown has shrunk our world in a way I could never have previously imagined and I am afraid to contemplate the consequences for young people and what a post-covid world will look like.  I watch politicians vacillate between public health and economic priorities, trying to square the public good with their politics as they confront the pandemic and the systemic and deeply-rooted poverty and inequality now staring them in the face.

Receiving a vaccine is an individual act which works for the common good – this I know. Self-interest and altruism in perfect harmony.  In a vaccine trial you have a 50:50 chance of hitting vaccine gold and that was good enough for me.  As it happened, in early February I received an appointment letter for the Louisa Jordan Hospital in Glasgow to go for my Covid jag two days later.  I had been instructed to contact the research team if I was called for my jag and I would be unblinded.  The result?  I had indeed received both doses of the Novavax study vaccine back in October and November. This meant I could cancel my vaccination appointment. I was already covered! It can’t describe just how happy I felt knowing that and also that I had been covered for three months previously – I felt retrospectively happy too which is quite odd. The previous week, the National Institute for Health Research (NHIR) reported that the NIHR – supported Novavax COVID-19 vaccine is ‘89.3% effective at preventing COVID-19, shown from interim analysis of its Phase III study data, including effectiveness against the new variants of concern’.

 “These are enormously exciting findings and show that this is a highly effective and safe COVID-19 vaccine – importantly it also shows that this is a vaccine that is effective against the UK variant that has spread so quickly. This wonderful news is a tribute to the over 15,000 volunteers in our trial, to the dedication of the UK investigators and to the huge support of the NIHR.”

Professor Paul Heath, Novavax Phase 3 trial Chief Investigator and Professor of Paediatric Infectious Diseases at St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

I still have a few more visits to the research facility scheduled for this year to finish the trial. I cannot say how I would feel now if the early trial results had been less positive. Knowing that I am that much protected and appreciated feels both satisfying and unwarranted – it’s a perfect balance of self-interest and altruism.

Volunteering for vaccine research is not for everyone. Click here for more information or check out NIHR on twitter: @NIHRtakepart

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