When she got the call, Joyce Currier of Warwick knew what she had to do. A retired school teacher, Currier had been carefully protecting herself and her family from the raging pandemic. She was on Omega Medical Research’s list because she took part in a clinical trial years ago. They called to ask whether she would join a coronavirus vaccine trial. After talking it over with her family, she was the first volunteer for Omega’s AstraZeneca trial: “We felt that someone has to do it.”
Her confidence came from how informed she was about the trial: “I literally got a book. It was 50 pages. They go over everything, but you have it at your fingertips to make sure.” On the first day she went into Omega’s Warwick lab, she spent 3½ hours talking with the doctors and then receiving a physical examination and the actual vaccine dose. “When you do the study, they have the full cover up, the plastic shielding. You feel so, so safe,” she said.
After she received each of the two AstraZeneca vaccine doses, several weeks apart, Joyce got a mild headache and felt nauseous and fatigued for a few days. Although, she says, “This was nothing, in the scheme of things.” The trials will also be around for the long-haul—participants are asked to keep in touch with the labs for two years. Currier has been keeping a regular e-diary about her health and receiving regular Covid-19 tests and antibody testing, as well as check-in calls from Omega.
Because there is a chance that she received a placebo in the trial and her husband is immunocompromised, Currier is still playing it safe. Still, she’s glad to have participated in the trial. She says it’s heartwarming to know she helped the vaccine effort. She posted about it online and was overwhelmed with the positive responses: “People were calling me a pioneer and brave. Pioneer? Brave? I didn’t think of that at all. I wanted to be there for my family.”
For EG resident Lisa Conlon, participating in the AstraZeneca trials was an act of practical faith. She heard about the trials over the radio, but only looked into it after she heard that an acquaintance had joined the trials. A friend of hers who is a nurse told Conlon that the vaccine trials weren’t risky, so she called and got an appointment for the next day. Conlon, who is a spiritual adviser, sees the clinical trials as both a chance to contribute to healing and an exercise in positive thinking.
“I’m not afraid,” she said the day before her second dose.
Another EG resident who preferred to remain anonymous participated in the Pfizer trial. She decided to enroll at the suggestion of a doctor friend, who pointed out that the trials hoped to enlist people with pre-existing medical conditions, a category she falls into.
“It’s not something I would ever have thought of doing, but [the doctor friend] said, ‘It’s definitely safe, and I think you would be a good candidate for the study.’ ” So, the EG woman and her son joined the trial together at the end of July.
The EG woman said she thinks she received a placebo since she was diagnosed with Covid-19 a couple months later (her son did not get sick). The Pfizer trials promised that participants who received a placebo could apply for the genuine vaccine once it received FDA approval. In all of the vaccine trials, some participants receive a placebo vaccine so the researchers can compare infection rates. There has been a debate in medical ethics over this, since long-term control groups help determine vaccine efficacy. Until the FDA approval, however, trial participants won’t know whether they received the actual vaccine or a placebo.
The US vaccine companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca have been conducting combined Phase 2/3 clinical trials to test their vaccines’ efficacy across different populations and rare medical conditions. Participants have to be over 15, generally healthy, and without a previous clinical diagnosis of Covid-19.
To adjust to the pandemic, Omega’s parent company Velocity has increased its office space and in some cases used military trailers as exam sites. David Fried, medical director of Velocity’s Providence office and an EG resident, emphasized the importance of having a diverse group of trial participants, to make sure that the vaccines will work for as many people as possible.
News of clinical trial experiences comes even as Rhode Island gears up to start distributing the vaccine later this month. The Pfizer vaccine is closest to approval, which might come from the FDA as soon as this week. Fried said, “Everyone who works in this line of business can agree that developing a COVID-19 vaccine is probably the most important work we have ever done in our careers.”
He added, “The simple matter is, these trials have to get done and we think the people who take part in clinical trials are heroes.”
If you’re interested in participating in the ongoing Covid-19 clinical trials, you can reach out to Velocity’s Providence office or to Omega Medical Research directly.