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Science and Innovations

Clinical Trial Volunteer Discusses Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will meet tomorrow to discuss granting an emergency authorization to Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine. It’s expected to receive approval and could start shipping nationwide as early as this weekend. More than thirty thousand people volunteered for the clinical trial, which showed the vaccine is safe and effective. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with one of those volunteers, Dr. Sam Keim, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Arizona.

Will you tell me about your experiences working in the emergency department during a pandemic?

We’re ten months into this, and the fatigue, metal and physical fatigue from this pandemic is really setting in. We’ve been fortunate, we’ve only had a couple of our physicians convert to positive with COVID. None of them have been seriously ill. But that is not the case around the country, we’ve had hundreds of healthcare providers become seriously ill from this virus. We’re ready for this to be over. We’re absolutely sick and tired of it, and want this to be over. But we’re hanging in there.

Tell me what made you want to volunteer for this vaccine trial.

It was very self-centered, I wanted to get the vaccine because I wanted the extra protection. Unfortunately it appears that I got the placebo. That’s just the breaks!

Do you know that for sure or is it still a blind study?

It is absolutely a blinded study, but I do know because I went and had my antibodies checked with a serology test after the trial started… My wife and I both entered the study, and I had essentially no pain or swelling or side effects from the injection whatsoever. There were two injections, a month apart. But my wife got a little bit of a sore arm after the second shot, so we were hoping that she actually got vaccine. She also went and had a lab draw and had her serology done and she is positive for antibodies.

Obviously you were hoping to get vaccinated, but this is still an experimental vaccine and part of a clinical trial, so what motivated you to take that risk?

The motivation part is easy, Melissa, because this is the biggest public health threat of our lifetimes, and a clinical trial for a vaccine to prevent COVID was singularly important in our eyes. The concern about potential side effects was real. We both looked up the data we could. But we thought that it was a risk worth taking.

Can you describe to me how this particular vaccine works?

Really this is a novel technology, and it’s using messenger RNA. I think a lot of people have learned about messenger RNA for the first time in their lives because of this vaccine, which is kind of cool… It’s an elegant technology, basically sending a message to the cells of the human to manufacture these proteins which then your body then produces antibodies to. And that’s different than sending in an inactivated virus or an attenuated virus into the body to do the same thing. There are challenges with it, everybody seems to know about the refrigeration or freezing that needs to happen which these vaccine vials, and the logistical challenge of getting that vial out to distribution centers at that temperature. Some more traditional vaccines don’t require that. This mRNA vaccine could be the best thing ever, I certainly hope so, but it’ll be interesting to see if we can pull this off logistically.

What’s the main thing you want people to know about vaccines, when they become available? 

Get it! If there’s a vaccine approved, I would just get it. Because the risk of not having a vaccine and getting COVID, is still very, very significant in Arizona, and will be for several more months.

Sam Keim, thank you for speaking with me.
Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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