The Current

Trials of COVID-19 vaccines aren't risk-free, but this volunteer says possible benefits 'far outweigh' danger

Medical student Sean Doyle is volunteering to test a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. — just one of several potential vaccines being explored by scientists fighting to end the pandemic.

Doyle previously participated in an 18-month trial for an Ebola vaccine

Sean Doyle is one of 45 volunteers in a U.S. trial to test whether a COVID-19 vaccine is safe. He had the injection at Emory Univeristy in Altlanta, Ga. (Damon Meharg/Emory University)
Listen19:37

Read Story Transcript

Taking part in any vaccine trial could bring potential side effects, but one volunteer in a COVID-19 study says he isn't worried.

"The chances of having a really adverse side effect that would require medical attention are typically very low," said Sean Doyle, a medical student at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

"The potential benefits on a population level far outweigh the individual risk."

Doyle is one of 17 subjects in U.S. biotech firm Moderna's vaccine trial at Emory University, where trials began on March 27. The first stage of the study — that looks at whether mRNA-1273 is safe and to what extent it stimulates the immune system — began at Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle in mid-March. If successful, future trials would determine whether it can prevent infection.

The urgency of the pandemic means the Moderna trial moved to human tests only a couple of months after the disease was identified. 

Doyle previously participated in an 18-month trial for an Ebola vaccine. (Submitted by Dean Doyle)

In total, 45 volunteers at the two sites will receive two doses, a month apart. At Emory, 11 enrollees have been given intermediate doses and six will be given high-level doses. The difference in dosage is designed to ascertain how strong inoculations should be.

The injection Doyle received did not contain coronavirus and cannot cause infection.

But he said minor side effects can range from pain around the injection site to experiencing higher temperatures as your immune system responds. His health will be monitored for a year.

"In very rare cases, there can be severe effects that include anaphylactic shock — that only occurs in about one in four million people," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"That would produce the same type of sort of allergic reaction that someone that is allergic to bee stings might experience after being stung by a bee."

Sean Doyle is one of 17 subjects in COVID-19 vaccine trial at Emory University, Georgia. 1:18

Safe vaccines take time: reporter

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded the trial through its agency the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a vaccine might not be available for 12 to 18 months.

Even with additional funding ($836 million US to NIH's coronavirus vaccine research), there are concerns an 18-month timeline is ambitious.

Dr. Anthony Fauci says the U.S. is on track to have a COVID-19 vaccine in the next 12 to 18 months 1:46

Journalist Umair Irfan says scientists need time because any vaccine "has to be cleared for safety for a wide section of the population."

"This is something that you're eventually gonna give to healthy people and potentially millions of them," he told Galloway.

Irfan has written for Vox about a problem known as "immune enhancement," whereby an experimental vaccine does not protect subjects from a disease, but actually makes it worse if they eventually become infected. 

This was the case in a 1960s trial for respiratory virus RSV, in which two subjects died.

In a statement to Politico, NIAID said the Moderna trial is being monitored for signs of the problem, but their scientists see the risk as low.

Doyle, who was asked to participate based on his previous involvement in an 18-month trial for an Ebola vaccine, is so far "very happy to say that I'm feeling well."

"It was basically just like getting a flu vaccine, so I had just a little bit of tenderness at the site of injection for about a day. But other than that, absolutely no issues whatsoever."

The National got a look inside the Saskatoon lab working to create a vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus. 2:02

Devote resources to sustain research

The Moderna trial is just one of several potential vaccines in development, as research teams around the world race to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

Irfan said many of those studies are "building on past efforts on related viruses."

"We have experience with past diseases like SARS and MERS, and there were vaccine development efforts that started but sort of petered out that researchers are now picking up on and carrying the ball forward," said Irfan.

Today's research is also being helped by an unprecedented level of collaboration, he said, as researchers around the world focus on the pandemic.

"People [are] willingly sharing some of their raw information and letting other people look at their models and their results early, so they can help modify or tweak their own experiments," he told Galloway. 

Time and funding are the biggest hurdles for scientists trying to develop vaccines during an outbreak, including the coronavirus. 2:14

While he thinks that co-operation will help in the search for a vaccine, he warned the time needed could pose a funding problem.

"It may not emerge until after the peak of the pandemic fades, but it's still a worthwhile endeavour and one where we should still be devoting resources."

Irfan pointed to philanthropy-led efforts as a way to ensure resources for research are sustained.

"One of the big concerns is that governments tend to lose interest when once a pandemic sort of fades away," he said.

Last week, Microsoft founder Bill Gates pledged billions to simultaneously fund the research and manufacture of several potential vaccines, saying it was better to "waste" billions pursuing all at once, rather than spend longer researching one after the other.

Pledges like that will "help solve this problem of a lack of focus or lack of attention once pandemic fades," Irfan said.

"I think that's going to be a critical element going forward."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Matt Meuse and Kaitlyn Swan.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now