I Volunteered for the COVID-19 Vaccine Human Trials. Here's What It Was Like.
Our three-part video series takes an inside look from the perspective of a volunteer.
It was July 2020, and after months of lockdown in London, I had become a grump. Cafes, shops, and pubs had just reopened, but I was suspicious of others. While the capital briefly came alive as COVID-19 cases fell, my mood was dark with the spectre of all the unknowable things yet to come.
But at a research clinic at a hospital in west London, staff were jubilant and it was infectious. The good kind. Today, more than 32 million people have had their first COVID-19 vaccine dose in the UK. But back then, five months before any jab would be approved for use, I was vaccinated as one of the first 120 volunteers in the first phase of the human trials with Imperial College London.
“I love your mask!” said the cheerful receptionist at the entrance to the clinic, referring to my butter-coloured mask covered with London landmarks, since faded through overuse. I told the nurse who checked all my vitals that I’m Welsh, and she talked of holidays hiking through Brecon. The attendant who administered the coronavirus vaccine soothed my nerves and distracted me with stories about her life as a health care worker living in Cape Town.
The doctors, the volunteers — everyone felt like they were sharing in some secret optimism.
When the pandemic first emerged, there was a strangeness in knowing the best way to stop the virus was to do, well, nothing at all: just stay indoors, watch Tiger King, and occasionally clap. I wanted to help, but didn’t know how. So when I first saw the shoutout that the vaccine trials needed volunteers on Twitter, I jumped at the chance to feel like some small part of the solution.
At first, I had applied for the Oxford trials, but spots for volunteers filled up fast, and within a few weeks, their team got back in touch to ask if I’d be interested in a health screening for another study. I asked a lot of questions, filled out a lot of forms. Then at the physical screening, my blood pressure was low, so they checked me over with an electrocardiogram. Eventually, I was given the all clear — and I was in.
The particular vaccine being tested by Imperial College London used a man-made chemical called mRNA, designed to imitate the spike protein in the virus, which when injected, triggers the immune system to produce antibodies that defends the body against SARS CoV-2.
It’s a revolutionary approach, also used by the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. For a better explanation, I’ll leave it to Vick Krishna, a writer who used TikTok and “fork hands” to explain how mRNA vaccines defend the body from COVID-19 in a video you can watch here.
We were the first humans to test the vaccine, after it had successfully passed trials in rats. There were three different doses given to volunteers randomly — either 0.1, 0.3, or 1 micrograms of the vaccine — with one-tenth of the dose previously tested on animals. At this stage, there was no placebo, since we were testing the safety of the jab, rather than its effectiveness.
There were risks. It hasn’t been tested in people before, so they couldn’t predict what side effects there would be. The most likely reaction would almost mimic the virus itself: flu-like symptoms, a high temperature, aches in the body. This has nothing to do with the replication of the virus protein, though — it would just be your body acting out, giving an unwelcome reception to things it wasn’t used to.
The scariest part was going into the hospital itself. I feared what I’d seen on the news: doctors hidden behind protective clothing, and patients treated in corridors. But as I arrived for my first dose of the vaccine, the staff exuded chill. In this space, at least, they were in control. “They really know what they’re doing,” said one male volunteer, around my age, dressed in a tracksuit and converses. My unease melted away.
As I was vaccinated, I thought of my Mum. Nothing soppy — she thought volunteering was a terrible idea. My brain went into overdrive, chronicling all the imagined risks she listed over the phone. But, really, there was nothing to worry about, bar a needle phobia, and a sore arm. For me, there were no other side effects, no shakes or fatigue, nothing fluey.
Afterwards, I had to record my temperature, alongside any side effects, in an online diary every day for a week. I confused sunburn for a large rash at the injection site, momentarily panicking the research team. There were not, I complained, any stickers for participation.
A booster shot followed 28 days later, and we went through the whole process again. As the study is still in development, with an update expected in the coming weeks, I can't yet be absolutely certain I have antibodies but the doctors indicated to me that the results have been promising. Regardless, I'm still following public health guidelines, so masks in public places, social distancing, and the rest of it.
We started making a video series about the trials at Global Citizen, reflecting on what they meant for the safety of the vaccine; deconstructing the record-breaking speed at which it was developed; and looking ahead at the inequity at the heart of the global rollout.
Looking back at the three videos we’ve since put out, it’s difficult to comprehend how far we’ve come. In July, despite all the bombastic confidence from tabloids, the idea of having a vaccine within the year felt almost arrogant. But here we are: a year on from the first UK lockdown, with more than half the adult population having already received at least one jab — including, by January 2021, my 58-year-old Mum, a frontline health worker, and my 82-year-old Gran.
But although an enormous 693 million people have had at least one vaccination worldwide, only 0.1% of these doses have gone to low-income countries. The fastest way to end the pandemic everywhere is to ensure vaccines also reach the world’s poorest countries, something Global Citizen is working to help do through our Recovery Plan for the World. So what are we waiting for?
Vaccine inequity is a problem that has not gone unnoticed by the World Health Organisation. That’s why, last year, they helped create the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, alongside the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a partnership that accelerates the development of vaccines, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organisation that improves vaccine access.
Their partnership, known as COVAX, is asking donors — including wealthy countries, businesses, and philanthropists — for urgent funding to get 2 billion vaccines to low-income countries by the end of the year.
It has already delivered over 38 million vaccines to over 100 economies across six continents. But it says it’s still $2 billion short of the financing required to fulfill its goals.
When I was accepted to be a volunteer on the vaccine trials, it felt like hope — that there was a way out of the pandemic, and that there was something useful to do to help get there.
Now, hope looks like COVAX — because until we get vaccines everywhere, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere. Help us urge world leaders and pharmaceutical companies to make vaccines and other tools available to everyone by signing our petition here.