Juneau woman among thousands of Americans taking part in COVID-19 vaccine trials

A white woman with a striped tank top gets a bandaid put on her should
In this 2020 photo captured inside a clinical setting, a health care provider places a bandage on the injection site of a patient who just received a flu vaccine. The best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated every year. CDC recommends everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine every season. (Lauren Bishop/CDC)

The drugmaker Pfizer recently applied for an emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine. 

And Alaska state health officials said this week that if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives companies the go-ahead, the first vaccines could arrive in Alaska before the end of the year.  Though, they probably won’t be widely available until March. 

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Americans have been helping to develop these vaccines by going through clinical trials — including a Juneau woman who has been part of Pfizer’s vaccine trials.  

Fiona Brown grew up in Juneau, but right now she’s in Ohio, working on a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. 

So, when she saw an ad on Facebook looking for volunteers for Pfizer’s clinical trials for its COVID-19 vaccine, she knew that as a science nerd she had an edge. 

“It was pretty funny when I got in there and they gave me the protocol, and it’s like ‘Alright, so there’s going to be some technical science stuff in here’ and I’m like ‘Don’t worry, my undergrad is in biomedical engineering; nano-particles are kind of like, my thing. I could explain it to you if you’d like me to’,” she said, laughing.

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So, here’s how it worked. 

She had a 50-50 chance of either getting the vaccine, or a saline solution injected into her. And, the study was double-blind. 

“I don’t know what I got, the nurse injecting me doesn’t know what I got, the doctor in the study doesn’t know what I got,” she said.

That being said, Brown is pretty sure she got the actual vaccine. That’s because saline injections don’t generally cause immuno-reactions. The vaccine, though, can and she got sick. 

“I actually had a fairly moderate reaction,” Brown said. “It’s pretty rare, they say about 5% of people had what I had which was a fever, nausea, fatigue, body aches. But because I had that reaction, that tells me that I’m like 98% sure that I got the actual vaccine.”

Just to be sure, Brown said she went and got a COVID-19 test. And that came back negative.

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The study isn’t over. It’s about two years long. Brown said she got two shots, two weeks apart — that’s the immunization process. Then, they called her back three weeks later and drew some blood. They’ll call her back at 6 months and 12 months and two years later. 

“That’s going to be where they’re measuring how long the effectiveness of this vaccine is going to last because that’s a major question right now, right? Is this going to be like a flu shot where we have to get this every year? Or is this going to be like chicken pox — you get it once and you’re done?” Brown said. “We just don’t know.”

Another unexpected side effect of the vaccine is that Brown is carrying a lot less stress now.

“It’s such a relief to not go into the grocery store and not constantly be thinking about ‘What am I touching? How close am I to people’,” she said. “I was really scared at the beginning of getting asymptomatic COVID[-19] and spreading it to people and not knowing. And that was just a constant concern of mine, I didn’t want to be that person.”

Now, it’s much less likely that she will be that person.

She’s using her knowledge of how the vaccine works to try and demystify it for people. She can rapidly explain it in a sea of multi-syllabic science jargon, but has also come up with a simple way to illustrate how it works. 

Some vaccines, like the traditional flu vaccine, use live virus or dead virus or pieces of a virus, and scientists use that to train your immune system how to recognize an invader and your body learns how to fight it off. 

But, there’s this middle step where you have to have a ton of that virus in order to make enough vaccines. Brown said the problem with that is that it takes a long time to make. 

Pfizer though, went in a different direction. The drug company’s vaccine is mRNA-based. 

“I think the best way to explain it is, in science class, what we typically learn is that the DNA is the manual — it has all the information you could ever actually need. And from that manual, you have mRNA which are like photocopies. So the mRNA is like 200 copies of this one page of the manual that’s important,” Brown said.

Essentially, the mRNA gets delivered to the cells and then the workers in the cells use that photocopy to produce whatever needs to be produced. In this case, Brown says it’s proteins that your immune system learns to recognize and fight — using photocopies, instead of real virus, to teach your body how to fight off COVID-19. 

“So there’s no infection going on, there’s no damaging of cells. It’s just a process of giving a different photocopy,” she said.

Brown said she hopes giving people an idea of how the vaccine works will prompt them to make more informed decisions about whether they should take it. She wishes that everyone could talk to their personal doctor about the vaccine and if it’s a good choice for them, but knows that’s not realistic. 

She said that people who don’t want to get the vaccine should weigh their concerns carefully.

“Is it because you’ve had really bad reactions to vaccines in the past? Is it because you don’t trust pharma companies? Is it because you believe that the process has been politicized and you don’t necessarily trust our government?” Brown said. “Really analyze what is it that you’re afraid of with the process and then decide from there. Is this a reasonable fear when weighing it against having a pretty deadly virus circulating in our country and around the world and the economic toll that’s taking.”

Either way, she said it’s a personal choice.

If the FDA authorizes Pfizer’s vaccine, the company says it could have 50 million doses by the end of the year and 1.3 billion by the end of 2021.