The anxieties that accompany being a COVID-19 vaccine trial subject

A volunteer is injected with an experimental Chinese COVID-19 vaccine on 25 September as Turkey began final phase III trials at Kocaeli University Research Hospital in Kocaeli, Turkey. Murad Sezer / REUTERS
03 November, 2020

In late August this year, I decided to volunteer for a COVID-19 vaccine trial. At the time, I made the decision on a whim. Perhaps I was driven by journalistic curiosity. I was eager to understand the process behind a clinical trial that will be part of a historic effort to contain a pandemic that has astounded the world. 

I did some research on a trial being conducted near me. It was for the Oxford vaccine candidate Covishield. This vaccine candidate has been created by embedding a spike protein from the SARS-CoV-2 virus in an adenovirus—a type of virus that causes the common cold—derived from chimpanzees. The adenovirus vector for the vaccine is synthesised in a way that it cannot replicate once injected into the body, and so, cannot cause any substantial illness. The hope is that the injected spike proteins will stimulate an immune response in a vaccinated person and prevent the person from developing the COVID-19 disease when exposed to SARS-CoV2. 

Before making my decision to enrol, I spoke with a doctor involved in the trial, who confirmed my apprehension that my asthma might make me unfit for the trial and that I would not pass the screening. I was partly relieved to hear this. If I was unlikely to be allowed to volunteer, I did not have to seriously consider the risks involved. That was the argument I used to placate my parents over a particularly tense dinner-table conversation. “What’s the harm in registering when I am unlikely to get selected anyway?” I asked my mother nonchalantly. 

I sent an email to the hospital conducting the trial, expressing my interest in volunteering for the trial. That was the end of the matter for me until mid October, when I received a call asking me to come for a formal screening to one of the hospitals conducting the trial. The next day, I found myself anxiously pacing the lobby outside the communicable-diseases ward of the hospital, waiting for someone to call me in. Three other volunteers—a young woman, a middle-aged man and an older man with grey hair—sat outside the screening room, patiently waiting their turn to be screened. I was too nervous to sit and passed a few minutes perched on the edge of my bench before jumping up to resume pacing. It did not help that a room at the other end of the ward was being used to collect samples from suspected COVID-19 patients. “But those patients have been asked to come in during a different time slot,” a staff member on duty assured me.