Oxford University and Imperial College London are both in the race to find a coronavirus vaccine. On 9 September the Oxford vaccine announced it had been voluntarily paused to allow a review following a “potentially unexplained illness”. This is “routine action” for whenever someone is taken ill on a trial, it says. Jack Sommers was part of the early phase of the trial. [This piece was originally published on 6 June].
It’s been a month since I first signed up for the coronavirus vaccine trials. I was paid a grand total of £235 for five hospital visits, various needles to be stuck in my arm, and generally to be used as a human guinea pig, all in the hope I could help to develop the much-discussed Covid-19 vaccine.
Nothing has been talked up as our potential saviour more than the Oxford University vaccination trial, one of scores being developed around the world. The vaccine has been repeatedly cited as the best hope of returning us to our pre-Covid lives and the UK government is seriously invested; it pledged a combined £43 million to UK-based laboratories rolling out human testing.
The first phase, which I was part of, took place in England last month. Now they’re expanding it to ask tens of thousands of Brits across the country to take part and put themselves in the same position as me in the coming weeks.
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If you do sign up, prepare for the process to be more mundane than you might expect. A vaccine trial combines a lot of admin, like signing up for a bank account but with the light trepidation of having your holiday jabs. You apply via an online questionnaire and will be asked every conceivable question about your health history and your family. Once approved, you’ll be called to the hospital.
The first time I went to St George’s in south London I had been self-isolating in my flat for two months; I live alone and am recently unemployed. I found myself in a waiting room surrounded by other people I presumed were there for the same reason (the only other test subjects I know of are three macaque monkeys). Despite our common bond the awkward GP-surgery atmosphere meant we didn’t talk.
On this first visit you are required to give urine and blood samples, fill out forms and watch a video about how they’re expecting you’ll only get mild side effects. Then you go home to await the green light once everything checks out.
In the meantime be prepared for your friends and family to have endless questions, including many wrongly assuming you will be exposed to coronavirus as part of the trial – you won’t. I have found myself inundated with well wishes (and a few conspiracy theorists online too).
Two days after my first hospital visit I sent a frantic follow-up email asking why I hadn’t yet had the call to return for the injection. The reply basically said: ‘Calm down and wait’. It was at this point I started feeling nervous for the first time.
I was called and returned to the hospital – although I was anxious it was also the closest I had come to a normal workplace in weeks. It was a tantalising reminder of life pre-lockdown (despite the sterile atmosphere). My nostalgia quickly evaporated as a nurse started talking about the vaccines given to the rhesus macaques; I salute the monkey's sacrifices for medical science but the serene ‘guinea pig’ image in my head was now well and truly gone.
I thought back to a few messages I had had from people shielding, including one woman with multiple sclerosis who told me: “You are doing something that could help millions of people”. This made me, a grown man who doesn’t like needles and puts a hand in front of his face during horror films, feel fearless. The injection itself – the only dose you receive – was painless. I was given a thermometer and asked to record my symptoms daily through an online diary.
My biggest side effect seems to have been paranoia. I don’t know whether I was in the 50 per cent given the actual vaccine or 50 per cent given a control, but twice in the first week I went to bed with mild fever symptoms, which I may, in retrospect, have imagined. “Raised temperature and sneezing,” I wrote in the diary’s text box on day three with the solemn resignation you might use to telegraph that the Titanic had struck an iceberg.
Given my temperature that day was a perfectly normal 36.5 degrees, my narrative didn’t always quite match reality.
As the weeks have gone on I’ve not suffered any further symptoms. Instead my preoccupation has become with the success of the trials. I used not to care whether Imperial or Oxford got there first but every piece of good news about “my” vaccine has made me want to cheer and blow an Oxford University vuvuzela out the window. Then when it was reported that the vaccinated monkeys all ended up contracting coronavirus, I was bereft.
Thankfully I will not (intentionally) be made to face the virus in the same way but I want to tell my grandchildren I tested the vaccine that saved humanity, not one of the forgotten scores that didn’t work.
Looking back, I can see I’d incorrectly seen myself as the protagonist who had to have the best story, the most dramatic side effects. Eventually, I came to appreciate there will be many trials and thousands more volunteers on the Oxford trial alone. Next week I’ll be back in hospital for follow-up tests just as the latest volunteers arrive for their first shots.
Failure and learning are central to the scientists eventually succeeding so even if my vaccine doesn’t work, I won’t ever regret having been one of the first to add my name to the list.
To sign up to participate in a vaccine trial, you can register your interest online.