On the afternoon of Sept. 22, I became a data point in the search for a vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
That’s when I received the first of two shots in a clinical trial to develop a vaccine, and became one of 30,000 volunteers to take a needlestick for science.
Why am I doing it? A combination of altruism, curiosity, and a sense of duty as a journalist. But more on that later.
Aside from the nurse who injected me and the hospital pharmacy that supplied her with the injection, no one else knows whether I received a placebo or the would-be vaccine. Not me. Not even Dr. Bindu Balani, the principal investigator in the trial at Hackensack University Medical Center, one of 89 study sites around the country.
This is called a double-blind study because both the researchers and the participants are blind to what was inside that syringe.
I admit, I have a hunch. But I won’t share it, in case the team monitoring me reads this.
A participant in Moderna’s clinical trial of a vaccine for COVID-19 receives an injection. Half of the participants received the vaccine, and half received a placebo. (Photo: Lindy Washburn)
The vaccine being tested was developed as part of America’s Operation Warp Speed by ModernaTX, a decade-old Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech company. Moderna has been awarded $955 million in government funding for the project, although it has never brought a vaccine to market. If this vaccine is shown to be safe and effective, the federal government has contracted to buy 100 million doses, with an option for 400 million more.
For seven days after my injection, I took my temperature each evening, measured the size of the mosquito-bite-sized bump on my arm as it faded away, and noted that at first my arm hurt a little, but “not enough to affect daily activities.” I recorded this and other information — including my lack of headaches, fatigue, muscle aches and nausea — on a secure phone app that sends the data to Moderna.
Weighing the pros and cons
My journey to the curtained cubicle where I received the first injection began on the job. I’m a health care reporter, and I had been covering the pandemic for six months when I wrote a story about clinical trials for the vaccine starting in New Jersey.
I wanted to do something to help, and was fascinated by how a vaccine could be developed and brought to market so rapidly amid a pandemic. I thought a first-person account of what it’s like to be a guinea pig these days might make a good story.
So I completed an online questionnaire declaring my interest in volunteering. A few weeks later, a nurse followed up with a phone call.
Her enthusiasm was contagious. She and other nurses had volunteered to work weekends to recruit volunteers, she said. She was excited to be part of a project to bring an end to the pandemic.
Chances were 50-50 I’d get a placebo,