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What It Was Like To Participate In The Clinical Trial For Moderna's COVID-19 Vaccine

Nov 20, 2020

Journalist John Yang volunteered to take part in a Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial not for "great altruistic reasons," but because he wanted to get a vaccine sooner rather than later.

"It started off with self-interest — I wanted to get the vaccine sooner," Yang, special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, tells NPR's All Things Considered. "Then when I found out that it was the Moderna trial, a new technology, one that has never been approved for a human vaccine before, I got sort of excited. It sort of piqued the science nerd in me."

There are currently two COVID-19 vaccines that appear to be highly effective and are awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval. The first was created by pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, has reported being 95% effective. The second vaccine was created by the biotech company Moderna Inc. and is 94.5% effective, according to an analysis of its clinical trial. That's the one Yang took part in at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He recently wrote about his experience for STAT.

Yang writes that he was also drawn to vaccine trials to participate in because he is considered high risk for contracting a severe case of COVID-19: he's over 60, has asthma and high blood pressure. He's also Asian.

"I think my ethnicity was a big plus because they really do want 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," he tells NPR.

Yang reports that had two shots about a month apart, and he says the first "really wasn't that bad." He didn't feel any of the effects until the next day, when he started experiencing mild achy joints and muscles, and says "fatigue was the main issue."

"The second shot really laid me low and very quickly," he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, explaining that he experienced muscle and joint aches and a low fever, which came on faster than the first shot, all consistent with side effects NPR has reported. Other participants also reported pain at the injection site. "But as that came on faster, it also resolved faster. I got the shot on Tuesday. By Thursday, I was fine."

With the trial, Yang says he had a 50% chance of getting the vaccine — an outcome he deeply wanted — and a 50% chance of getting a placebo. So, when he started feeling side effects, he was actually happy.

"The first day I was a little disappointed when I went to bed that I was still feeling OK and woke up the next morning, happy to be feeling bad, like a kid hoping to get out of school," he says. "I was happy to feel that onset of the side effects."

While he doesn't know for sure if he got the vaccine or the placebo, he wrote in STAT that he hopes it was the vaccine that was injected into his arm — not just saline solution. He said he is excited about the prospect that Moderna might offer the vaccine to the placebo group, too, now that the results from the study were so promising.

He told NPR he is happy that he "was able to help this help science advance. And also, I hope, help get a grip on this pandemic."

This comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the U.S. On Wednesday, the nation passed a devastating threshold: 250,000 people have now died of the virus.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been a great week for vaccine headlines, with both Pfizer and Moderna reporting promising results from their coronavirus trials. Behind those headlines are all the people volunteering to serve as human lab mice in those trials. One of them is Patient 232, the 232nd person to get either placebo shots or the real-deal experimental vaccine from the George Washington University trial. Well, Patient 232 joins me now. He is otherwise known as John Yang. And he's a journalist, a correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour." He wrote about his experience for STAT. John Yang, welcome.

JOHN YANG: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: As you wrote, you are at high risk for contracting, if you were to get it, a severe case of COVID-19.

YANG: I am. I'm older. I am of a certain age, shall we say. I'm over 60. I've got asthma. I have high blood pressure. And I'm Asian. I had actually read a study earlier that Asians are more likely to have a bad outcome if they are hospitalized with COVID, which certainly got my attention.

KELLY: And none of that ruled you out? They didn't care?

YANG: In a way, I think that they wanted it. I think my ethnicity was a big plus because they really do want to test - 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.

KELLY: Right. So walk us through the steps. You completed an online application in July. You had to list your medical history and all of that. And then what happened? Did you get a call?

YANG: I got a phone call. And I - they tell me they're calling from the George Washington COVID vaccine trial. And I actually thought that there would be more screening steps. I thought I'd have to answer more questions and maybe even come in for a physical exam before they said, OK, you're in. Then later that - in the same visit, they gave me my first shot.

KELLY: Wow. Did you have side effects?

YANG: Well, there were two shots. The first shot, it really wasn't that bad. It was sort of like a mild case of the flu. I - every muscle and joint in my body ached. I had a fever. I went to bed; I slept about 10 hours. But as that came on faster, it also resolved faster. By the next day, by Wednesday - I got the shot on Tuesday. By Thursday, I was fine. The second shot really laid me low and very quickly.

KELLY: And I gather, in a way, you were actually quite happy to be feeling lousy because...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...In your mind this suggested that maybe you'd gotten the real vaccine and not a placebo?

YANG: Exactly. The first day, I was a little disappointed when I went to bed that I was still feeling OK and woke up the next morning happy to be feeling bad. Like a kid hoping to get out of school, I was happy to feel that onset of the side effects.

KELLY: One thing that they told you that struck me was they instructed you, you have to carry on with your usual schedule. You can't just stay home and totally self-isolate. You got to walk the dog. You got to go for your run. Why?

YANG: It's funny. It was something that made complete sense once he said it, but I had never thought of it before. The doctor who was the head of the study said that if everyone stays at home and never goes out and is - and doesn't get sick, if no one gets sick, then the trial will have failed. They need some people to get sick so they can compare between the placebo group and the group that has the real - got the real deal. It's something - it's funny because it never occurred to me that that was the goal.

KELLY: That is John Yang, national correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour" and Patient 232 in one of the big vaccine trials. John Yang, thank you so much.

YANG: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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