Home 2021 The Race to the Vaccine!

The Race to the Vaccine!

by Beheruz Sethna
2 comments

 Illustration by Rajat Patle

This story is set long, long ago, way back in the Summer of 2020 … the lockdowns were coming to an end, but the future seemed uncertain at best.

Each summer, I journey from the US to Balgram, an orphanage school outside of Lonavala, to teach science to orphaned kids. I have done that for many years. I buy equipment for fun but science-based experiments and teach the kids at Balgram the “fundas” before we do the hands-on stuff, which they very much enjoy. But, in 2020, due to COVID-19, I did not go. In the US, we faculty members get paid our full salary for the academic year (August to the first week of May) and the summer is ours to do what we like. Most faculty teach in the summer for substantially extra money. I am a very popular guy in my department because, since I go to Balgram, I don’t compete for summer teaching money (as a senior professor I would get a substantial chunk of resources if I wanted). I willingly give up this increase in my bank balance in favor of the (presumably) increased Heavenly balance each time I teach at Balgram! But, in 2020 (since summer teaching decisions are made in January) I lost out on both.

The best hope for all of us was the vaccine. I am no scientist, so I couldn’t do anything on the science or medical front. But then this idea came to me – I could volunteer to be a subject for the vaccine test!

So, there I was – wondering what I could do that might make a difference. The best hope for all of us was the vaccine. I am no scientist, so I couldn’t do anything on the science or medical front. But then this idea came to me – I could volunteer to be a subject for the vaccine test! At the age of 72 (and having had heart surgery), some of my family and friends thought I was nuts (not the first time that this thought has crossed their minds, and it won’t be the last time either) and others called it courageous, but I decided to be part of a COVID-19 vaccine trial.

In July, I contacted Emory University (about 50 miles away) and volunteered my services. They were delighted to get an “older” guy in their sample. Not “old” mind you — just “older” than most. I went through an online screening at Emory and we had a lot of email conversations. Many of my friends cautioned me against going through with it because it was untested at that point, and so once or twice I considered “finding a good reason not to participate” (which might otherwise be called backing out). However, I did take the plunge and went to Emory in August. There were many, many screening questions on medical history, past surgeries, medications, etc., blood was drawn for tests, I had a nasal swab done to determine whether I was already infected, then a final screening by the PI (Principal Investigator) physician, and then I was officially accepted into the trial. 

 

… And, 10 minutes later, I took my shot!

It was a blind trial so I didn’t know if I got the placebo or the real vaccine, but since I did not show any symptoms, I suspected that I got the placebo. This is a true random trial with randomized selection, so 50% of the sample gets the real vaccine and the other 50% gets a saline injection. I had to report to them on an app every night on about 15-20 questions asking about everything from pain at the injection site to serious symptoms. 

As I wrote to a friend: “I am sulking a bit because I think I may be in the control group that got a saline shot, but I’ll feel better if I start feeling worse.” I didn’t.

A month later, I went again for another blood draw, nasal test, and a second vaccine shot — for which a much more severe reaction was expected. However, I did not have one, so I was now sure that I got the placebo. Then again after another month, I had to go for monitoring purposes, another blood draw and nasal test (but no more vaccine shots). 

As I wrote to a friend: “I am sulking a bit because I think I may be in the control group that got a saline shot, but I’ll feel better if I start feeling worse.” I didn’t.

Way before I went the first time, I had asked about the risk to others – to my wife Madhavi at home and my students and colleagues at The University of West Georgia. That would have been a deal-breaker. They assured me that I was not infectious by virtue of the shot (because the cells in a vaccine are dead). I asked again in person when I went for my first shot, and got the same answer.

As you probably know by this time, the Moderna trial (which was the one I was part of) “involved 30,000 people in the US with half being given two doses of the vaccine, four weeks apart. The rest had dummy injections. The analysis was based on the first 95 to develop Covid-19 symptoms. Only five of the Covid cases were in people given the vaccine, 90 were in those given the dummy treatment. The company says the vaccine is protecting 94.5% of people. The data also shows there were 11 cases of severe Covid in the trial, but none happened in people who were immunised” (Source: Moderna: Covid vaccine shows nearly 95% protection). This is a classic experimental design (causal research) which was fundamental to proving causality.

So, that was my small part (1/30,000 or 3.33 x 10-5) in the race to the vaccine! 

And, consistent with the theme of this Fundamatics issue, “about bringing hope through ‘doing’ – about … initiatives that have changed the world (or a small corner of it) for the better, in whatever fashion, to whatever degree.”

Postscript: After the vaccine was approved, I was offered the opportunity to be “unblinded” – I don’t think that this was a real word when we were at IIT half a century ago, but it is now. I did go for that option and found out that I had indeed received the placebo (no surprise there). After that, I was offered the vaccine and I took it.

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2 comments

Ranju Bhat April 10, 2021 - 10:44 pm

Many parts of the world witnessed what has been termed as “Vaccine Hesitancy”. But you, Beheruz, beat them all, with your courage to participate in the Vaccine trials. I admire your guts, young man!! Keep on doing such commendable and admirable work.

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Zen April 10, 2021 - 10:58 pm

‘So, there I was – wondering what I could do that might make a difference. The best hope for all of us was the vaccine. I am no scientist, so I couldn’t do anything on the science or medical front. But then this idea came to me – I could volunteer to be a subject for the vaccine test!’
I loved the attitude described by these sentences, the doing-something, the not-giving-up-neither-giving-in to despondency. Thanks for giving us an example of how it’s done.

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