Why I Decided to Be a COVID Vaccine Guinea Pig: A Variety Editor Shares Her Experience

Like much of the world, I was thrilled to hear on Monday that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was proving to be effective and could end up being available before the end of the year.

Sure, it seemed hopeful that there might eventually be an end to the pandemic in sight. But I was even more relieved by the fact that the news came out after the election, instead of before, when it could add to the confusing Republican rhetoric around the pandemic.

As a participant in the Pfizer trial, I had been following the progress closely and already knew the vaccine was nearly ready – but now many others also believed it was safe and effective and was making its way through the process without undue political pressure.

So why did I sign up to be a guinea pig?

Like everyone else, I was devastated by the thousands of people dying, the millions unemployed, the healthcare workers being exposed to the virus and the lack of a national plan.

As a Variety editor, I was also concerned for the entire entertainment industry – for the survival of theaters and concert venues, for the ability of crew to get back to work, for everyone who risks their lives to feed their families or themselves.

So in August, when I saw on an L.A. news station that there was an opportunity to be part of a vaccine trial, I decided to check it out. I had never experienced any effects from my annual flu shot, and I don’t have any underlying conditions, so I felt the risk was low. Just a few days later I had a phone call back, and after answering some basic questions I had an appointment for later in the week.

The trial clinic was headquartered in a vintage medical building on Wilshire Boulevard. A recent copy of Variety magazine in the waiting room seemed like a good omen. The first appointment was several hours long, but not particularly invasive – there was a COVID test, unfortunately of the nasty nose-swab variety, a blood test, a minor physical exam and some questions about my risk of exposure – how often did I go shopping, did I get together with friends or go into an office. I also made sure to inquire whether there had been any reports of serious side effects, and fortunately in the Pfizer trials, there had not.

Since the shutdown began, I had been working at home, shopping just once a week and only seeing occasional friends at a distance in our front yard. However, a few months into the pandemic, I returned to volunteering at SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, where we provide food and other services to unhoused neighbors from around the Silver Lake area. Apparently some combination of weekly Trader Joe’s trips and volunteering was enough potential exposure to qualify, and I received the first dose of the vaccine that same day.

I felt nothing after the first dose, and I posted on Facebook to say I had participated and that all seemed to be well. The response was surprising! People I barely ever hear from thanked me for being brave enough to enter a trial. I was horribly embarrassed to have so many people treat me like some kind of hero, when I’m just an average person who would like people to stop dying, but there was no point in protesting.

Up until that point it hadn’t even occurred to me that being in the trial was brave. I had never done anything braver than a brief and heavily supervised rappelling photo op on an Israeli cliffside.

Healthcare workers are brave. The Zoom teachers and Zoom parents are brave. The Americans dealing with no way to pay rent or buy food for their children, largely because political leadership has been non-existent, are extremely brave.

But I do like trying new things, whether unfamiliar foods or new music. I’m also an impatient person, and I’m impatient for the pandemic to end.

What I really wanted was to help get our country back to some form of normal, whatever that may be. I  really miss going to concerts and travelling. I also miss our Variety newsroom, and though we’ve done an amazing job of running an entire magazine virtually, it seems like we’ve also lost some essential part of collaboration and communication.

Since the trial participants are divided into a group that gets an active dose and a placebo control group, there was no guarantee I would get the active vaccine. But I felt like it couldn’t hurt to possibly have a lower chance of catching coronavirus — the first-person accounts of lingering, severe cases and serious continuing issues in people of all ages were absolutely terrifying, so I’d really like to skip that particular 2020 horror.

Three weeks later, I returned for a second dose. The next day, I didn’t feel so great. Much like some people who receive the flu vaccine, I was feverish, with a stomachache and an overwhelming desire to go back to bed. I called in sick and fell asleep. A few hours and two ibuprofen later, I was able to work the rest of the afternoon and was fine the next day. My friends seemed very concerned to hear this, as if not feeling well for a few hours was a sign the vaccine was harmful or suspect. But it made me feel encouraged, since three of the four people I knew who were doing the Pfizer trial had felt the same way the next day, so I suspected that four of us had gotten the real thing and the other had received the placebo.

I won’t know for sure until the vaccine trial unblinds, which could happen fairly soon. That means that if we got the real vaccine, they need to tell us so that those who got the placebo can then get an active dose. Until then and likely even after, I’ll continue to wear a mask and social distance and do everything else to help keep myself and those around me safe.

Even when vaccines start to be approved, the pandemic won’t go away instantly. How on earth can any drug company manufacture, and distribute hundreds of millions of something that needs to be kept in a deepfreeze and requires two doses? I suspect the Americans who can’t handle wearing a mask aren’t going to be jazzed about a stomachache, either. But it’s a start.

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