Major pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and now AstraZeneca have been making headlines over the last couple weeks as they release preliminary safety information regarding their respective vaccines for COVID-19. So far, all three parties claim their vaccines are more than 90% effective at blocking new infections of the virus.
While studies show many Americans are still on the fence regarding whether or not they plan on taking a vaccine once it hits the market, tens of thousands of people have already received these drugs as part of the clinical trials process.
Now one of those participants is coming forward with their story. Journalist John Yang, who works for the PBS Newshour, recently shared his experience after taking part in Phase 3 of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial.
Participating Out of Self-Interest
Yang is considered high risk for serious illness brought on by COVID-19. He’s over the age of 60 and has asthma. When news of the clinical trial first broke earlier this year, Yang says he was eager to sign up. He mailed an application to the closest research site. He soon received a phone call from a woman in the program asking him if he was still interested. He soon became known as “Patient 232”.
For Yang, participating in the clinical trail wasn’t about saving humanity. It was about protecting himself from a mysterious new disease at a time when staying at home wasn’t an option.
As he wrote online, “I wish I could say I did it to help hasten the defeat of the coronavirus or to further science. But I really just wanted a chance to get a vaccine as soon as possible.”
Yang is also Asian. Studies show Asian Americans are more likely to die than white Americans once they are hospitalized for the virus.
Looking back on his experience, he recalls, “I think my ethnicity was a big plus because they really do want to widen these tests to have participants of color and also they wanted to find out if it was safe for people with asthma and people with high blood pressure.”
During the clinical trial, around half of participants are given placebos, or sugar pills, while the other half receive the actual COVID-19 vaccine. Researchers then compare the results to make sure the drug is working as expected.
Yang says he received two shots about a month apart. The drug was administered at George Washington University close to where he lives.
He says the experience “really wasn’t that bad.” He had some fatigue and muscle stiffness, as well as pain around the site of injection, but these are mild symptoms, all of which have been reported by the media with regards to the Moderna vaccine.
After the second shot, he felt the same effects, but “as that came on faster, it also resolved faster. I got the shot on Tuesday. By Thursday, I was fine,” Yang said.
However, as a high-risk individual, Yang says he was relieved when he started feeling the side effects. That meant he likely received the actual vaccine instead of just a placebo.
Yang says he was happy Moderna paid him for his participation in the study. He received $20 to cover each trip to the clinic, $100 for each vaccine injection, $15 for each phone check-up, $5 for each app entry that was used to track his health status, and a $50 bonus for participating in the trial.
As for the Results?
After receiving his shots, Yang asked the study director if he should do anything differently, and the answer was no. Yang was told to keep doing his job as usual, which meant conducting interviews, finding stories for the news, and running errands with a mask on, avoiding large gatherings, and walking his dog.
The director eventually said, “If everyone sits at home and never goes out and no one gets sick, the trial will fail.”
That’s why Yang realized the point of a clinical trial is for people to get sick. If no one gets sick, Moderna wouldn’t know whether the drug was effective. If someone gets sick after receiving the placebo, while other people stay healthy after taking the vaccine, it shows the drug is working properly.
Yang says he’s still free of COVID-19, even though he admits he’s not sure if he received the drug in question. However, he was excited to learn that Moderna plans to administer the drug to everyone who received placebos in the clinical trial, now that the results suggest the drug is 94.5% effective.
For a hard-working journalist like Yang, he’d rather have immunity from the virus than nothing at all. It’s all about giving himself some much-needed peace of mind.
As he wrote online:
“I’m not sure how I would have felt if the vaccine was only slightly effective, or wasn’t effective at all. Fortunately, that’s not something I need to consider. Given my fears about getting Covid-19, I’m happy that I have already gotten Moderna’s effective vaccine, or will get it soon. But I’m also a little bit proud that my participation in the trial furthered science, and may have helped put the coronavirus in check.”