Over a month ago, I got injected with either a Covid-19 vaccine candidate or placebo from Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit. Since I’ve enrolled in a randomized, double-blind vaccine trial, I don’t know what I got and neither do the doctors and nurses who are running the trial at Ark Clinical Research in Long Beach, Ca.
I’ve had no side effects; my arm wasn’t even sore after I received my shot. Since then, I’ve had to monitor myself for any Covid-like symptoms, and twice a week, share how I am feeling via an app I downloaded on my phone right before I got my shot. Thankfully, and despite the skyrocketing number of people getting infected with the virus in Los Angeles County where I live, I have not gotten sick.
But vaccines only work when they become vaccinations in a wide swath of the population – representing people of all walks of life.
According to recent analysis of state vaccine data, CNN found that vaccine coverage is twice as high among White people than among Black and Hispanic people. Part of the reason for this disparity is many Black and brown people are hesitant to trust something being injected into the arm. That fear is exactly why I wanted to participate in a clinical trial.
As a journalist, I spend a lot of time talking to doctors about the virus and analyzing data. The coronavirus is particularly devastating in Black and Latino communities. If by showing what this process is like for me spurs other people of color to get their vaccinations, then that could be more lives science can help save before this pandemic is over.
Earlier this month, I had to return to Ark Clinical for my 29-day follow up. It was a much quicker appointment.
“So today, what we’re going to do is we’re going to do an abbreviated physical exam,” said Dr. Kenneth Kim, medical director and CEO of Ark Clinical Research. “But you will get bloodwork and the bloodwork is actually to look for antibody production.”
In other words, by now, my body has had time to build up protection against the virus if I did indeed get the vaccine candidate. That’s what the central office will examine when they see my blood sample. From there, the scientists will analyze the data to see if there’s a higher incidence of people getting Covid-19 in the placebo group versus the vaccine candidate group.
Since the virus has been running rampant across the country, the trial is moving at a quick pace.
“The more Covid positive cases we have, the faster the trial is going to go because now we have more patients to compare to see how many are in the placebo group versus how many are in the vaccine group,” Kim explained.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Johnson & Johnson is moving closer to getting the Food and Drug Administration to consider its vaccine for authorization. The trial was fully enrolled by mid-December with about 45,000 participants.
In early stage trials, the company said the vaccine was shown to generate an immune response in nearly all volunteers, with very few side effects.
“Johnson & Johnson is right around the corner … right around the corner means that they’re probably a couple of weeks away from getting the data looked at, to have the FDA evaluate whether or not we’re in a situation where we could move ahead and start thinking about getting it out into the public,” Fauci said.
With the widespread shortage of the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines available to Americans currently, more doses are severely needed. Dr. Mark McClellan, a Johnson & Johnson board member, said the company plans to have “enough vaccines for 100 million Americans by the spring.”
There are some advantages to the Johnson & Johnson candidate: It’s only one shot and it can be stored in normal freezer temperatures.
As the vaccines are rolling out, some iconic Americans have shown themselves getting their shots like civil rights leader Andrew Young and NBA hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Baseball legend Hank Aaron in perhaps his last public push for equality, made it clear he wanted others to follow his lead. “I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this. It’s a small thing that can help zillions of people,” he said of getting vaccinated.
Back in the doctor’s office at Ark Clinical Research, nurse practitioner Amber Mottola arrived to draw my blood. She’s also an emergency room nurse who already has been vaccinated.
The answers are in my blood
“I didn’t feel really anything either,” Mottola told me as she prepped my left arm. This gives me hope that maybe I also got the real thing, too.
I asked her about the people she encounters who are afraid of the vaccines and about how she tries to convince them otherwise.
“We haven’t hit phase four of any of these vaccines yet so it’s true, we don’t know the long-term effects of anything,” she said while diligently focused on my veins. “We don’t know what happens when you get Covid four years later either.”
But we do know now that more than 412,000 Americans are dead because of this coronavirus so why not do all we can to protect one another against getting it?
Bandage applied, I’m out the door until my next visit. By then, Johnson & Johnson could be on its way to getting its vaccine into millions of Americans’ arms.