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As COVID-19 Vaccines Roll Out, Trial Participant Shares His Experience

An  illustration of a team of scientists working on coronavirus vaccine in the laboratory.
Mykyta Ivanov
Howard Berkes is a participant in the Moderna vaccine trial in Utah. Right now, COVID-19 vaccines are in their first phase of distribution in the state.

Right now, the COVID-19 vaccine is being given to healthcare workers throughout the state. But there are a few other Utahns who have participated in vaccine trials, meaning they either got the vaccine or a placebo. Retired NPR investigative reporter Howard Berkes was part of the Moderna trial here in Utah.

Caroline Ballard: What was your thought process like when it came to participating in Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial?

Howard Berkes: [When I spoke to researchers,] they said given my age and my relative health, that I'd be perfect for the trial, and I signed up right away. I believe I was the first person to sign up for the trial in Utah. My wife also signed up and we were participants number two and three in terms of actually getting the shots.

CB: How did it compare to something like a flu shot or another type of vaccination that people might be familiar with?

HB: I actually had fewer effects than I've had with other vaccine trials that I've participated in — flu and pneumonia. My arm didn't hurt. I had a little bit of muscle ache, but that was it. I didn't get a headache. I didn't get a fever, which at first made me think that maybe I had the placebo and not the shot at all. But it was also the same with my wife. We've since come to believe that at least one of us probably got the shot. We don't really know for sure. Of course, it's a double blind study. Given the fact that we were numbers two and three, it makes sense that at least one of us got the vaccine.

CB: Do you have a gut feeling about whether you got it or not?

HB: I think I did. Everybody who's participating in the trial is guessing based on the reactions that they've had. The lack of any serious reactions doesn't mean that you didn't get it.

CB: There are some questions about the ethics of giving trial participants who received a placebo a real vaccine in the next few months. If they're vaccinated, scientists could miss out on studying the differences long term between placebo and real vaccine. How would you feel if you found out you got the placebo? Would you want that vaccine?

HB: Oh, absolutely. I'm not actually sure that what you say makes sense scientifically. Once they have decided that the vaccine is going to be issued to the general public, I'm not an expert on this kind of stuff, but I don't think you need a placebo group anymore because you've already determined that there's some efficacy to the vaccine. What you were looking at is whether giving the vaccine to some people and not giving it to others had some sort of difference in the people who got disease. That's been demonstrated.

Now, it would seem to me that since you have these tens of thousands of people who you've already been following, you already have been taking their blood, you've been checking in with them all the time — it would seem to me that it would make sense then to double the group of people you're studying, who you've given the vaccine. Because now what you're interested in is seeing whether or not there are any long term consequences.

But there's another issue there. There's a danger in people not knowing whether they have the placebo or not, because the vaccines are out there and a lot of the people who volunteered for the trial are healthcare workers, so they're going to be first in line. If they don't know whether they had the vaccine, they're going to be inclined to go get it. And there may be a health risk to having more than the two shots that are part of the trial.

CB: After participating in this trial, what would you say to someone who's skeptical of a vaccine?

HB: I did investigate the vaccine. I've done stories over the years involving experimental drugs or medical devices. So I know about institutional review boards. I know about informed consent. I also know scientists. People who are worried that there are going to be political implications in this, that somehow this was rushed out for political purposes — I've met enough rank and file scientists involved in these sorts of things to know that they're not going to do that. They're not going to rush something out. So I have a lot of confidence in this system.

To me, this is really simple. I can't force people to wear masks. I can't force people to social distance like they should. I can't force the governor of our state to issue a statewide mask mandate and enforce it. But I can get two pokes in my arm.

To me, it's a no brainer. We owe it to our loved ones, to the people we interact with on a daily basis — the people we see at the grocery store, the doctors and nurses we might see. We owe it to our neighbors to do what we would all do if we knew that our neighbors were in trouble. We'd help them, right? Well, this is what this is all about: helping our neighbors.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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