HONOLULU (KHON2) – The number of people worldwide who have died from COVID-19 have officially surpassed 1 million.
The grim milestone has ramped up efforts to deliver a vaccine to the masses, with several pharmaceutical companies around the world conducting trials.
In July, the Trump administration announced a $1.95 billion deal with American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech to supply the federal government with 100 million doses of their coronavirus vaccine.
The vaccine candidate, dubbed “BNT162,” is currently being tested in a trial. The initial recruitment goal of 30,000 individuals has since increased to 44,000 participants worldwide.
The University of Hawaii at Manoa was selected as one of 120 testing sites.
“We’ve had great interest. Over 2,000 people in Hawaii contacted us about being in the study,” said principal investigator David Fitz-Patrick, M.D.
Over 400 Hawaii residents were chosen to participate in localized trial, which began in August.
Fitz-Patrick says participants who are at increased risk of catching the coronavirus, such as first responders, or individuals with pre-existing health conditions were ideal candidates.
Among the participants are Gary Lahens, a retired Honolulu Police Officer, Joe Ho, a Hawaii-based businessman who cares for his elderly parents, and Albert Lin, an Attending Hospitalist at Wahiawa General Hospital.
“I don’t want to be suffering from COVID-19. I’ve seen my friends who have had it,” said Lahens.
“Every day when I walk out of my apartment, I worry about catching something that might pass it to (my parents),” said Ho.
“As a clinician, I cannot honestly recommend any of my patients to get (the vaccine) without me putting myself on the line first,” said Lin.
The vaccine is administered through two shots, spaced three weeks apart. Participants are either injected with the vaccine, or a placebo shot. Those who received a placebo shot were selected randomly.
“When people come in and volunteer, we enter certain data into a computer. It’s all confidential, and then we get a number back. And that’s how we select the vial to be given to them,” said Fitz-Patrick.
“They won’t know whether they’re getting the vaccine. This is called the double blind trial. It’s double blind, because volunteers don’t know. And neither do I, because I have to assess whether people are getting side effects related to the vaccine.”
After receiving an injection, participants are asked to stay for 30 minutes. This allows researchers to observe the test subject for possible allergic reactions.
Lin reported feeling soreness in his arm, where the shot was administered.
“I had a muscle ache for about a day after my first shot. After the second one, I had a little more muscle ache. Maybe like two days, it was kind of achey,” Lin explained.
Ho described similar soreness. “I was very nervous. (I’m thinking) I’m gonna put something in my body, and I’m not sure 100% what it is. But I feel confident it’s gonna be a good thing for myself, and my parents.”
“You don’t know what’s going to happen to your body, right? So I’m thinking, ‘I hope something doesn’t happen.’ The only thing I ever had, was I was going to the bathroom a lot. Other than that, I felt fine,” said Lahens.
“Everything has been going better than I expected in this trial. The lack of significant side effects has certainly been a nice surprise,” said Fitz-Patrick.
He adds the trial will last 2 years.
“We expect to know whether the vaccine is efficacious within the next 6 months. But then we need to know if this is going to be a once a year shot, or once a lifetime, or somewhere in between. The way we’re going to do that is have volunteers come back every 6 months and measure their antibodies, and see how long the antibodies stay in their system for.”
Creating a covid vaccine is a complex process, says Dr. Fitz-Patrick, with many unknowns.
But for Lahens, Ho, and Lin, the unknown is worth it.
“The world is changing every day. We are subject to a lot of diseases. How do you expect to survive? You’ve got to have some kind of a vaccine,” said Lahens.
“I can’t wait for the day that I can go out and feel safe. And when someone sneezes, I don’t have to look at them or feel weird,” said Ho.
I could (have received) a placebo (shot), but I’m helping advance science, too. It feels unreal, like something out of a movie in a way. But I’m happy to do it. I know many may not want to, but I think it’s a personal decision,” said Lin.
The big question: when will this vaccine be available to the public?
“The data would go to the FDA for approval. It’s impossible to say how long that is going to take. Realistically, it’s an optimistic projection would be towards the end of the year, but it’s more realistic for it to be early next year,” Fitz-Patrick replied.