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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Vaccine Trial Underway On Navajo Nation And In Salt Lake City

A photo of a man getting a medical shot in his arm.
The Navajo Nation was chosen as one of over 145 sites across the United States to participate in the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trial study. The study has passed the first phase of safety testing, and is now being tested for effectiveness.

Doctors are currently recruiting volunteers in the Navajo Nation and Salt Lake City to take part in a trial for a COVID-19 vaccine, which is being tested for effectiveness across the United States.

So far, the vaccine has shown good results, according to Dr. Laura Hammitt, Infectious Disease program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

“All of the data we have to date shows that this is a really promising vaccine,” said Hammitt. “It stimulates the body to make a high level of antibodies that are able to neutralize the coronavirus.”

Hammitt, who is coordinating the study on the Navajo Nation, said the vaccine has caused only minor side effects in trial participants, like aching at the injection site and mild fever. And it does not contain any active virus material, so it will not infect study participants with Covid-19.

The trial began in April and has enrolled over 29,000 people, according to details published online. It is being conducted in partnership with the Center for American Indian Health on the Navajo Nation, as well as by J. Lewis Research in Salt Lake City. The first phase of the trial tested the safety of the vaccine in 180 patients.

Hammitt said that the Navajo Nation was chosen as one of over 145 test sites in the United States to ensure the vaccine is effective for Native American people.

“The last thing we want is for this to only protect white people,” she said. “We need to ensure it can protect minorities and elderlies.”

The Science Behind The Vaccine

Unlike old fashioned vaccines, which involved inoculating a patient with a mild virus in order to get their cells to produce antibodies to it, this vaccine uses messenger RNA. It is similar to DNA, in that it contains genetic material that acts as an instruction manual for cells.

The instructions tell the cells to produce the spike protein, which is what the coronavirus uses to attach to cells, and thus prompts the cells to make antibodies to fight the spike protein.

“If you make antibodies to the spike protein, that antibody can neutralize the virus,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, director of infectious diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “And if you can induce antibodies against the spike protein with a vaccine, you can prevent the virus from infecting cells and from infecting the monkey — or hopefully the person.”

The pharmaceutical company Moderna has also created an mRNA vaccine similar to Pfizer’s, and while both were produced in record time, Swaminathan said researchers have been working on creating this type of vaccine for years.

“It’s not like they started from scratch three months ago,” he said. “It’s just a question of plugging this virus into the [mRNA vaccine] backbone.”

Given the safety of the vaccine, Swaminathan said the study offers two benefits to participants, since there is a chance they will become immune to the disease.

“You’re helping science when you enroll in this trial,” he said. “But you are also helping yourself. And I think it’s particularly relevant to people who are at high risk.”

Only one group of study participants will get the vaccine, while the other will be injected with a placebo. But that hasn’t dampened excitement about the trial, according to Chris Mickelson, president of J. Lewis Research in Salt Lake City.

“With the crisis we are in, many people are interested,” he said. “They want to get the vaccine to potentially protect themselves. Everybody has that hope that they do get the real thing.”

The Indian Health Service locations in Gallup, Shiprock and Chinle are currently enrolling healthy adults on the Navajo Nation in the trial, as is the Foothill Family Clinic in Salt Lake City. Participants will be compensated for their time and will be required to keep a diary of their health as well as attend follow up visits.

If the trial is successful, Pfizer has said it could supply up to 100 million doses worldwide by the end of 2020 and approximately 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

Corrected: September 20, 2020 at 1:33 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the names of Laura Hammitt, Sankar Swaminathan and Chris Mickelson.
Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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