COVID-19 vaccine trial kicks off in Chicago: Very first participants roll up their sleeves

Medical Watch

CHICAGO —It’s here. Chicago’s COVID-19 vaccine trial is officially underway.

The first participants rolled up their sleeves Monday.

We first heard about the Chicago arm of biotech company Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial in June. That’s when researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago announced the Phase 3 study designed to see how effective it is.

Monday, WGN News met the very first volunteers. Like Bonnie Blue.

“I feel honored to be able to do it and to maybe help people understand the importance of doing it,” she said.

One down, 999 more participants to go.

Blue is the first. She arrived at UIC at 8:30 a.m.  ready to take part in the historic trial.

The process started with a vital sign check and a blood draw. The 68-year-old great grandmother said she signed up to save others of her generation.

“An entire generation of grandparents that could be lost and with that loss of grandparents you’re losing family history, family culture – you’re losing all of that wisdom and grandparent love,” she said. “That is cheating those children.”

Participant number two was 55-year-old Eduardo Rollox.

He, too, felt compelled to take part in the city’s first COVID-19 vaccine trial to get underway.

UIC head of infectious diseases Dr Richard Novak is heading up the effort to enroll 1000 participants in the double-blinded, placebo controlled trial. He then will follow those participants for two years, though he says results could be available sooner

“The disease is very active in the community, then there will be more cases and the study will end sooner,” he said. “So it’s largely dependent on how active the disease is and the study population.”

Participants will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: A study group which will receive the vaccine, and a control group, which will receive a placebo. A total of 30,000 people will be enrolled across the country in what’s been called Operation: Warp Speed. Earlier studies of the Moderna product showed it’s safe.

“The majority people did not get any symptoms did not have any side effects, so it appears that it is safe,” Novak said.

The experimental vaccine triggers the body to produce decoy spikes – much like those on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. That kicks the immune system into gear so when it sees the actual virus, it produces powerful antibodies and prevents the virus spikes from puncturing and infecting cells.

“Those projections or spikes are what the virus uses to attach to our cells in order to get inside and cause infection, so it’s sort of like a lock and key. The spike is the key that unlocks the cell to get inside,” Novak said. “The vaccine produces spike protein and then your immune system recognizes that it’s a foreign substance and makes an immune response to it.”

The immune response is similar to the response that occurs when someone is naturally infected. And although that infection was believed to protect from future illness, a new study in the Journal Clinical Infectious Diseases revealed a previously infected patient came down with a variance of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 months after the initial illness.

Doctors say they are not deterred and believe the vaccine will work better.

“The immune response from the vaccine is more potent and effective than the natural immunity that occurs from a real infection with coronavirus,” Novak said. “So we are very hopeful that the vaccine will be more effective than the natural immunity to the virus.”

Among those Novak hopes to attract in the test group are individuals 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, groups hit particularly hard by the virus particularly within black and brown communities.

“Those groups happen to be the most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and therefore it’s very important that they participate in the vaccine trial because we want to know if the vaccine will work in African-Americans and Latinos,” he said. “The only way we will know that is if they also participate in the trial.”

“For myself I am just one thin thread in the tapestry of humanity, but we all have a part to play in this,” Blue said. “Everybody doesn’t have to stick their arm out for an injection but there are so many things that people can do. Right now we all have to be responsible and do what needs to be done so we can all survive.”

There are multiple vaccine candidates scheduled to move to Phase 3 testing this summer with at least two other products to be tested here in Chicago.

UIC has set up a phone line for those interested in participating. They’ve already received 8000 inquiries about the study.

Anyone interested in volunteering to participate in the vaccine trial should contact UIC researchers at 312-413-5897 or email ProjectWishDOM@uic.edu.

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