This letter was sent in by one of our members:
My Experience as an Oxford Vaccine Trial Volunteer
As with most people it has been a switchback ride for me ever since the first national lockdown last March. Even before then I stumbled across the YouTube channel of health expert John Campbell who calmly anticipated the pandemic as early as January and I felt a mounting anxiety turning to disbelief with the slow response in the UK. Looking back on those times I realise how depleted my current energies are since the days of sourcing face masks and making hand sanitiser out of rubbing alcohol and sending out thermometers to those I thought were vulnerable.
The transition to hard reality came in May 2020 when an old friend died of Covid-19 and I deeply regretted not having contacted him for some time. Soon after my sister-in-law became ill and was in hospital for 6 weeks uncomprehending why she could not receive visits and expressing feelings of being abandoned. It was complex and time consuming arranging her wishes to enter a care home and as I write I have yet to be able to visit the room where she lives. One aspect of concern is that the Care Quality Commission has only inspected a handful of care homes since last March, presumably because of major complaints. Those in care homes with low staffing and no relatives to liaise on their behalf may well have experienced obscure suffering which will never be known.
So when the opportunity came to join the third phase in the Oxford Vaccine Trial* I saw it as an opportunity to make a small contribution in memory of my dear deceased friend whose funeral no one had been able to attend.
The staff at the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool were immediately inspiring. I had a detailed health check on the phone, gave permission for my medical records to be checked, and was given lots of clear information what to expect. There was no payment nor expenses thank goodness but the rewards were clear. Unlike the other vaccine trials UK participants were given home Covid testing packs to do every week so the trial would pick up on even asymptomatic cases. At the first visit for the vaccine injection it took several hours with further health checks and a blood test and we were shown a film which explained everything. The staff I encountered seemed very efficient and friendly and very skilled at giving painless injections. I was given a booster shot 5 weeks later.
At the time of writing I still do not know if I was given the actual vaccine or the control vaccine. The latter was a vaccine for meningitis, chosen because its side effects mimicked slight covid19 symptoms. I had no side effects whatsoever, not even at the injection site, both after the initial injection and after the booster a month later. It was only at the third phase of the trial that large numbers of the “elderly “, over 55 year old were recruited. I was told anecdotally that any minor side effects had been mostly with younger patients and there seemed to be less, even no side effects the older the participant. I am well over 55!
I was asked to keep a simple electronic diary for the first 7 days after the both injections and given an emergency number to call in the event of any problem.
Participating in this trial brought the benefit of having a weekly Covid test at a time when these were less available and there was psychological uplift in the thought that I may well have had the vaccine and be better protected. However we were strongly advised to maintain the usual advice to continuing to protect against the virus.
Much the greatest benefit has been the contact with vaccine staff I met and their clear integrity, compassion and high motivation.
From the start AstraZeneca-Oxford officials have insisted the vaccine should be produced on a non-profit making basis for the duration of the pandemic which means that poorer countries unable to afford the much more expensive vaccines will benefit. As a planet we are all in this together. The Oxford vaccine has been described as globally important because it uses traditional methods to manufacture and can be stored at ordinary fridge temperature and distributed along well established existing routes. Moreover, it has been possible during the three phases of this trial to work out a formula improving the vaccine’s future efficacy to match that of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which are at least 6 times as expensive.
By the time you are reading this I may have been contacted by my GP via the national roll-out to get the vaccine. There is then a process whereby I ring up the Trial staff and they will tell me which vaccine I have had – either the Oxford one or the control vaccine.
I will remain in the trial for at least another year as the research is ongoing. Not least is the need to discover how long vaccine immunity will last. I will continue to have weekly Covid tests till June 2021. The information from weekly swabs as I have already commented is unique to the Oxford Trial, not only because it picks up on asymptomatic cases but because it will assist in finding out more about whether the vaccine reduces the rate of transmission to others including the new strains.
My participation was undemanding and required little of me. It has been an immense privilege to be associated with a scientific medical group where routine and relentless hard work and high values have been dedicated not to commercial success but to diminishing the suffering of all the world’s population.
* Ref: BMJ 2021;372:n86 “How the Oxford-AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine was made” 12th January 2021