I track the numbers along with everyone else, and each day gets more depressing. Forty thousand new cases. Fifty thousand. How high can we go? There are scientifically proven ways to fight this virus, and we’ve failed at every one. Our testing is too slow. We have no clear leadership. Millions of people can’t afford to stay home, and now we’re throwing fits about social distancing or wearing masks.
It’s like the United States is down to one solution that might save us from ourselves, one final bailout — the vaccine. Where’s the vaccine? When can we get it? That’s what the entire country is waiting on, so it feels strange that I didn’t have to wait.
I was one of the first people in the clinical trial for Moderna. There are 45 of us in Phase 1. This type of vaccine had never been given to humans before, so it’s a lot of unknowns. Sometimes I hear people discussing a vaccine like it’s some guaranteed silver bullet that should be ready to arrive on demand. We’re all starved for hope. I get it. But this isn’t magic. It’s science, which means protocols and phases and data to collect. There has to be room for trial and error. That’s part of what they’re learning from me.
For the first month, my experience was very standard. I work at a biotech institute in Seattle, and I learned about the vaccine trial on our office Slack. A co-worker posted a link with the sign-up form. He said: “If you’ve heard about the vaccine that might be ready within a year, this is the leading candidate.” They were looking for healthy people between 18 and 55. I’m 29, and lately I’ve been marathon training. My health history is so incredibly boring. I take a multivitamin once in a while, or maybe a Tylenol after I go running. That’s basically it. I’ve had nothing happen to me, ever, so I thought I might be a good candidate. I filled out the form without really thinking about it, and a week or so later they called me back. I went in for an initial check up to see if I qualified, and they took eight or 10 vials of my blood and sent it off to NIH. Eventually, they offered me a spot in the trial and gave me a consent form. It explained that I’d get two identical doses of the vaccine spaced 28 days apart, and then I’d have a bunch of follow-up appointments to see how it worked. It said: “You might have adverse reactions. There may be unanticipated risks.”
I talked it over with my girlfriend and my family. The pandemic was already crushing Seattle. I have a great-grandfather who died of the Spanish flu in 1918, when he was only 23 years old. I put my trust in scientists to come up with solutions. I believe in experiments. I had a biology teacher tell me once that if you know the results before you start, you’re not doing real science. I made my peace with the unknown. I signed all the forms.
I was in the study group that was getting the highest dosage of the vaccine. It was 10 times more than some people got. I remember sitting in the car before my first vaccination shot for an extra few minutes to gather myself. I don’t like needles. The exam room was really sparse, and I tried to distract myself by talking to the nurse and the doctor. I closed my eyes and turned the other way when the vaccine went in. In my head it was this big, historic thing, but the reality was five seconds. It was nothing. It was any typical flu shot. My upper arm was a tiny bit sore. They gave me a thermometer to check my temperature and a diary to write down my symptoms, but there was nothing to say until I came back for my next injection after 28 days.
The first time was so easy, and I wasn’t really nervous for the next dose. The clinic experience went exactly the same. The first difference I noticed was arm pain. It came on hard within about an hour of the second shot. Then, at like 10:30 that night, I was getting ready for bed and I started having chills. I was wearing sweats and still shivering, and I woke up all night with a whole bunch more symptoms. Nausea. Headache. Muscle pain. I took my temperature after midnight and it was 103.2. I was sort of loopy. They had given us a 24-hour call line as part of the trial to reach the nurse, but I think some part of me was like: “What is this going to mean for the vaccine?” My delirium goal was to sleep it off.
At 4, my girlfriend finally called the hotline, and one of the doctors in charge of the study met us at urgent care. The nurses were wearing those space suits for protection, and they gave me an IV for fluids and Tylenol for fever. They tested me for covid and a bunch of other things with a full viral panel, kind of ruling out the possibilities. My sense, in piecing it together, is that I had an immune overreaction to the vaccination because of the high dosage. The doctor told me: “It’s good you called. This is exactly what we wanted you to do. This is the whole point.”
My fever was already coming down, so I went home and slept until about noon. When I woke up, I realized I was really nauseous. I went to the bathroom to throw up, and when my girlfriend came to check on me, I was fainting. She caught my head so I didn’t hit the floor. I woke up laid out on the ground, and I was trying to piece together what had happened and where I was. She called the hotline again, but by then I was lucid. I drank some fluids and rested on the couch.
It’s probably the sickest I’ve ever been, but I was back to normal the next morning. I was fine. At no point did I think I was dying or anything. Even taking too much Tylenol can make you sick, you know? I don’t want it to sound like more than it was. I’d hate for — I don’t know. It’s complicated to talk about. I worry it will get twisted by the little army of anti-vaxxers. We’re living through a low point in confidence in scientific institutions, and it scares me. People have asked: “Don’t you regret signing up for the study? Didn’t this give you doubts?”
It’s like, “No!” For me, it’s more evidence the process is working. This is what’s supposed to happen. Two other people had negative reactions from the high dosage lasting less than a day, and then Moderna announced they were discontinuing the high dosage as they moved into Phase 2. The lower dosages are producing antibodies, so why inject more? It’s a trial. You learn and adapt as you go. They’re still monitoring all of our bloodwork for Phase 1, and I feel perfectly fine. They’re like vampires at this point. I’ve been back to the clinic probably four or five times since my second shot, and they’re only interested in my blood. They fill a few vials and send it off to the lab to see if my antibodies are sticking around, or if anything screwy is happening with my immune system. Phase 2 is 600 people, and they’ve already gotten the vaccine. Phase 3 starts this month with 30,000. A dozen other vaccine companies are doing the same thing.
This whole process is like walking over thin ice and looking for cracks. Step out a little further, test the ice, shift directions, keep inching ahead. Maybe you move a bit faster, but you don’t close your eyes and sprint. You need to be sure. You have to know the ground is solid.
I don’t know when that will be. That’s the kind of stuff they won’t tell us. I’ve heard people say Moderna is aiming to have 100 million doses this fall. I hope that’s true. All I know for sure is what it says in the paperwork they gave me. Phase 1 is scheduled to last 14 months, and I have follow-up appointments into next June.
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