Science

“I Have Done Humanity a Big Friggin’ Favor”

A COVID vaccine trial volunteer on what it’s like to take part in one of the most high-stakes human medical experiments ever conducted.

A hand in a purple glove holding a syringe
Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images

The massive effort to develop a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine appears to be progressing. Pfizer and Moderna, the two companies furthest along in the process, are within weeks of being able to report early results for their trials. Both companies have ongoing trials involving thousands of volunteers who line up to receive either a placebo or the experimental vaccine to test whether the vaccine is safe for humans.

Slate spoke to a Pfizer trial volunteer named Erik, a 45-year-old private chauffeur and Uber driver in Houston, to learn what it’s like to participate in one of the most high-stakes human medical experiments ever conducted. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Slate: How did you end up finding out about this?

Erik: I saw the commercial on TV. Or it was on the news—I forget. But Pfizer was looking for patients who were not going to be obese, no heart problems, [not] diabetic, all that stuff. And I’m normal. So I called them up.

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What made you want to do it?

The money, I’ll be honest with you. The money isn’t much. It’s $120 an appointment with Pfizer.

What happened when you called them?

They asked all kinds of questions. Am I overweight? And if I am, how much? How much do I exercise? Do I smoke? Do I drink? How much? What’s my life like? What do I eat? Do I stay healthy? And then one thing that was very important was they said, “You can’t father a child.” So they said, “Are you married? Single?” I said, “I’m married, but my wife tied her tubes.” “OK, perfect. That’s what we need to know.” That was very interesting. Because they can’t be responsible for the birth of that child if something goes wrong.

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When did you start the trial?

I didn’t go until Sept. 14. I was supposed to go the first week of September, but I got a flu shot, and they failed to tell me, “Do not get the flu shot,” so I had to wait 14 days because they don’t know if there’s going to be a reaction.

What was it like when you went for the first appointment?

I went into a professional building in Bellaire, Texas. And all these doctors were there. Thirty, 40 people in different offices. They had a whole floor. And I was there five hours. It was a long process. There were all kinds of questions. They did a [COVID-19] test in my nose. They took blood out, they took two little cylinders. Weighed me. Did a physical. Then they gave me the shot at the end. They didn’t even want me looking at the shot. Like, “Turn away.”

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Why didn’t they want you watching the injection?

I don’t know. I didn’t ask. They just said, “Turn the other way to look towards the wall.” I’m guessing it must have been a huge frickin’ needle. I’m almost positive the first needle was humongous. I actually told them that I was scared of needles. I hate when it goes in.

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If you’re scared of needles, this seems like a particularly tough way of making money.

Times are tough. Plus, I didn’t want to get sick.

Did they tell you what kinds of effects you might experience?

I don’t know. I’m sure I read it somewhere. But I just bypassed it and said, “Let’s get things started. Let’s go.” I actually do have papers at home of everything that I signed. So if I really was going to go through it word by word, I’m sure there’s things that I probably don’t know.

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So you weren’t worried, then?

No, not at all.

Did you experience any effects?

Nothing. The only thing was that my arm hurt. I took an Aleve the next morning. I got up at 4 or 5 a.m. and my arm was just hurting.

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Did you go just the once?

On Oct. 5, I went back and I got the booster shot. I was there 90 minutes, it was much quicker. They only did the nasal testing, they didn’t take any blood. The second [shot] hurt more. My arm was hurting for the whole week. My next appointment is Nov. 2, only to ask me questions.

Do you have to do anything else to monitor your health?

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Every Monday, I go in an app and they ask me COVID questions. Do I have any symptoms? Fevers, chills? And they pay me five bucks for that.

So that’s three appointments, plus entering your symptoms every Monday.

It’s over a 24-month period. So the appointment after next will be in six months. Then 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months.

Do you have a guess as to whether you have the vaccine or the placebo?

I honestly think that I got the actual vaccine.

Has potentially having the vaccine changed how you go about day-to-day life at all?

I still wear a mask, and I still clean my hands. I still wipe down my car with Lysol. Because I don’t know. It’s the trial. Who knows the vaccine even works? In the meantime, I still need to make sure that I protect myself and my customers and make sure I don’t get anyone sick at home.

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Did you tell your family and friends about your participation in this trial?

Yeah, my mom wanted to join it. And I told her that I didn’t think she needed to do that, but they’re actually going to roll out another group for senior citizens. She doesn’t speak English that well, so I told the coordinator that helped me that once the senior group started, that she wanted to be part of that. My wife was going to do it. She never got around to go because scheduling was tough. My stepdaughter was going to do it. And she changed her mind after I told her that they asked for me to not have kids. That scared her away.

Do you ever think about the fact that if Pfizer does roll out a vaccine, you will have contributed to it?

Oh, of course. Even though I am getting compensated, I have done humanity a big friggin’ favor.

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