Why this journalist decided to volunteer for a COVID-19 vaccine trial

CBC

After losing a close friend to the coronavirus in June, journalist Steve Stecklow says the decision to enroll in a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial was simple.

So when the British government put out a call for volunteers in July, the U.K.-based Reuters reporter put his name forward. He's now part of a trial led by pharmaceutical company Novavax.

After months of the pandemic wreaking global havoc, news about a potential vaccine seems promising. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer and biotech company Moderna are nearing the end of a successful trial, with both companies announcing their candidates are highly effective.

Stecklow spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what the experience has been like and what he's learned about vaccine development along the way.

Here is part of that conversation.

You got your second and final vaccine shot earlier this week before we start the interview. Let me ask you how you're feeling. 

You're going to be the first with the latest news. I'm feeling fine, which may be because I got a placebo, but I don't really know. 

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and biotech company Moderna, have both said their respective COVID-19 vaccines have proved highly effected in clinical trials. Steve Stocklow is part of a trial by Novavax. (Moderna/Reuters)

When you decided that you were going to be part of this vaccine trial, how did the people in your life, the people around you, react? 

Most of them were very curious. They wanted to know why I wanted to do it.

My former college roommate told me he thought it was risky. My doctor back in the [United] States told me I was brave and generous for doing this. 

I have to tell you, not a single one of my friends was willing to do it themselves, which surprised me a bit. 

Then what made you decide? What were the factors that went into saying yes to this? 

This all began back in July when the U.K. government asked for volunteers to participate in trials. And I've just read they've now gotten a third of a million, which is incredibly impressive, I think. 

And I had a friend who passed away in June from coronavirus, so that was on my mind a lot. 

If this pandemic's ever going to end ... you're going to need volunteers to test these vaccines or we'll never know if they're really safe and effective. And, you know, we're going to need people to take them. So that was one reason.

On a more selfish level, I wouldn't mind getting a vaccine as soon as possible. So even though it's a 50/50 chance that I've been injected with the vaccine, I would say that was a factor.

Another thing was, as I learnt, if you were to get COVID while you were a volunteer in one of these trials, that the doctors would be all over you and helping you and the thought of being able to call a doctor who would respond and they might even come to your house and treat you, that was an attraction. 

The federal government is finalizing its plan to roll out COVID-19 vaccines once they are available in Canada. The plan needs to include how to transport, store and deliver millions of doses quickly and may involve military assistance. 1:54

The process is actually quite defined and circumscribed. Can you tell us a little bit, other than showing up for two injections, what is required of you as a subject when you're part of this?

You're screened several times and they ask you a whole series of medical questions: Have you had this, have you had that? Are you taking this, are you taking that? And basically every answer for me, the answer was no. 

And they don't ask you anything about your behaviour. Like, do you go to pubs and restaurants. How exposed are you to getting? In my case, I'm like so risk averse. My wife has accused me of being her jailer. 

I haven't been to a restaurant or a pub in eight months, but they weren't interested in that. So, the screening all had to do with your medical history. When was the last time you had a vaccination, those kinds of things. 

And are you prohibited from engaging in any kind of social behaviour or risky behaviour? Are there restrictions on you right now? 

No, there's no restrictions at all. They've never once discussed that. 

Some of my friends were concerned that I was volunteering for what's known as a challenge trial, where you're given an experimental vaccine and then you're literally exposed to the virus. That's the last thing I'd volunteer for.

But I will tell you, they are considering doing that in the U.K. early next year and they have lots of volunteers signed up willing to do that. I imagine they're mostly young people. 

Steve Stocklow says he doesn't know if he was given Novavax's COVID-19 vaccine, or a placebo, as part of the trial. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

We know now that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both have efficacy rates that are over 90 per cent. So if the Novavax vaccine turns out to be less effective, will you be able to get one of these other vaccines?

That's something you don't really think about until you volunteer for one of these studies. And what I've been told is that if, say, the Pfizer vaccine becomes available in the UK, I'll be told whether I had a placebo or not. Now, if I did get a placebo, then I'll be entitled to get the vaccine here. 

Now, if I got the Novavax vaccine, it wasn't certain that I'd be allowed to take a second vaccine because there have been cases with other vaccines where people who took two different ones targeting the same disease had reactions. 

I'll certainly be able to have a discussion with the doctor as to whether it's worth the risk of taking something that may be more effective. I mean, who knows? I mean, I'm kind of a firm believer in karma and I'm trying not to worry about it. And so far, everything's gone fine. 

Written by Celeste Decaire. Produced by Annie Bender.


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