My experience in a covid vaccine trial, and why you should join one
Thanks to Aneesh Edara for reviewing this post.
Covid is probably going to get much worse before it gets better. Vaccine rollout is extremely slow, for no good reason. In Massachusetts, where I currently reside, the government doesn’t expect to have vaccines open to the general public until April to June. On top of that, the UK and South African variants of the coronavirus are also fairly likely to wreak havoc. Zvi Mowshowitz in the previous article predicts that things are likely to get worse, not better, by ~May.
In the meantime, how do we protect ourselves and those around us?
Why you should join a vaccine trial
Joining a trial is a 50% shot of getting a vaccine now, which seems like a much better deal than a 100% shot of getting a vaccine several months down the line.1 (In a trial, there’s a 50% chance you’re placed in the vaccine group and get the real vaccine, and a 50% chance you’re placed in the placebo and get nothing.)
It’s fast (takes <1 week from intent to shot), safe (Phase 3 vaccines have already passed safety checks), and they literally pay you for it. The vaccine itself is also very likely to be effective; after all, the reason why it’s in Phase 3 trials is because it triggered good immune reactions in Phase 1/2.
If you’re interested in reducing the risk of you getting covid in the next few months, it thus seems like a good choice to make. It’s also a good altruistic choice, because your participation will probably speed up recruitment a tiny bit, making it possible that they finish the trial faster as a result.
How to join a trial
You might think that with vaccines so far down the pipeline, and Moderna’s and Pfizer’s approved in the US, there would be no trials currently enrolling. This is not true. Many trials (Johnson & Johnson, AstraZenenca, etc.) are still enrolling new participants. Here’s how to join one:
Find a trial with an enrollment center near you. Good options include:
a. Search “covid vaccine trials near me” to see if there are any recent news articles on it.
b. Head to coviddash.org to find the trial sites closest to you.
c. I made a list of websites here if you aren’t able to find any local leads. This list is partially tailored towards Boston trials as of ~1 month ago.
- Sign up on their website, and then call the number they give you. At least for me, I put in my email, but never got a text response. Only after calling to follow up were they able to schedule me, and I got a shot ~4 days after that.
- Go to the trial site, get screened, and hopefully get a vaccine!
I joined the single-dose ENSEMBLE study, by Johnson & Johnson. On December 8, I received a shot (which was either a saline placebo or the real deal).
Some interesting things I learned through the process:
- Time commitment: For me, I had a one-hour Zoom informed consent session, then a three hour trip to the hospital to get screened and injected. The trial lasts for 2 years, with periodic in-person followups after 1 month, 3 months, and continuing at progressively longer intervals. For J&J, you also have to log twice weekly if you have had any symptoms of COVID-19, and if you do, you’ll have to come in again to receive a package of saliva tests and nasal swabs to take periodically.
- Leaving the study: You can leave the study at any time, even to receive another vaccine. Moreover, if you leave the study, they will also tell you if you got the placebo or the real vaccine. This means that if you got the placebo, you can get an approved vaccine as normal. (If you got the trial vaccine, it might not be a good idea or even necessary to get another vaccine, though.)
- What if the trial vaccine gets approved? In the case that the trial vaccine is approved, people are debating whether or not they should immediately vaccinate the placebo group or keep studying them. Regardless of the ethicality, it’s not entirely clear right now which option they’ll pick, but there is a chance you might get a blind crossover or an accelerated dose.
- Payment: You do get paid to join a trial! Payment is ~$1000 for me, spread out across the various scheduled visits of the trial.
Other cheap personal interventions
Purchase and use a P100 mask. P100 masks are industrial masks that filter 99.97% of particles. (Compare with the “gold standard” N95, which filters 95% of particles.)2 A well-fitted P100 mask could reduce your risk of getting covid from an activity by 100x. This is like, maybe better than a vaccine?? They also only cost like $30 on eBay. Just do it, it’ll be the last mask you’ll ever need to buy.
Use microcovid.org to calculate the risk of your activities. Know thy enemy. microCOVID is a project that allows you to calculate your expected covid risk of any social activity, and tells you how dangerous it is if you aim to keep your risk of getting covid at ~1%/year.
Install an Exposure Notification app on your phone. Check availability in your state here3 and either download the app on Android, or enable it in Settings on iOS.
Oh, and yell at your representatives, health officials, etc. to speed up the vaccine rollout. Seriously.
Thanks to Zvi as well for making this argument and motivating me to actually join a trial. ↩
The difference between the N and the P is that NXX masks don’t filter out oil-based substances, while PXX masks do. This isn’t relevant for covid, so both are equally good for their given filtration efficacies. ↩
Angry glares at Massachusetts for taking eight months before beginning to consider whether they should maybe have an exposure notification app. ↩
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