Studies 2/10/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Today I was “unblinded”. In September, I joined a study with Moderna to try out a new vaccination against the Coronavirus. Back then, we were looking at about 400 new cases a day, about where we are today but a far cry from the most recent surge which saw well over 2,000.

The vaccine is a novel approach (very similar to the other vaccines, such as Pfizer, that have also been approved). Instead of a weakened or dead version of the virus, this vaccine injects a small strip of mRNA, the genetic instructions on how to create the antibodies. This kind of saves the body the step of figuring it out from the weakened or dead virus on its own. It’s the difference between giving a machine to a person to figure it out and giving them the manual.

The study was a “double-blind” study. This means that some of us (typically about half) are given a placebo, and the other half the actual vaccine, but neither they nor I know if I was given the placebo or not. The idea of this is to avoid bias in the results. For example, if they know I was given the placebo, they might be tempted, even subconsciously, to treat every little sniffle as more serious than it is. On the other hand, if I knew I had the actual vaccine, I might be tempted to avoid reporting flu or coughs because I’ll assume it’s not Covid-19. So, I don’t know, and they don’t know, so neither of us will behave differently because of our own expectations.

It didn’t really work this time. I knew I had the actual vaccination because after the second injection I found myself fighting the symptoms of a mild flu. I was achy, run down, had the shivers and just generally felt terrible. Full disclosure, I would rather spend a day or two feeling just generally under the weather than what people who have actually contracted the disease faced, so I urge my readers not to avoid the vaccination for fear of these relatively minor problems. Just plan the second injection so you can take a day or two off. Fortunately for me, I was injected on a Friday, so I had the weekend.

Now here’s the problem with a blind study; how do I know (definitively) if I’ve gotten the vaccine or not? Today the vaccines are becoming more readily available, and some professions (such as educators like me) are going to be required to get the vaccination soon. So, even if I believe I had the real injection, how can I prove it? Beyond that, if I got the placebo, how do I know I still need it? As a service to those of us in the study, Moderna has started “unblinding” the participants, meaning we’re being told, if we should so desire, if we had the vaccination or the placebo.

I’m really impressed with Moderna. For those in the study that had the placebo, they have been giving the real vaccination, free of charge, with the first vaccination on the day of unblinding. Like I said, I knew I had the actual vaccination, but it was nice hearing that I am, indeed, correct. But for me, they took it even a step further. I was given a card certifying the vaccination with the dates of the two injections. Should my employer ask, I can provide the card as proof.

They are continuing the blood tests and nasal swabs to check for the antigen on a routine basis, although at this point I’m only checked every month or two. Honestly, I really dislike the nasal swab. It’s funny that they actually tear a hole in my skin (with a needle of course) to take the blood sample, but what I dislike the most are the nasal swabs. It stings, feeling similar to when you snort water through your nose while swimming, but unlike swimming, the sensation stays with me for a couple of days.

As a side note, yes, for my service as a volunteer, I am indeed compensated. So far, I’ve made about four hundred dollars (more or less) in the span of five months. There was more in the beginning as they called me in more frequently for testing and injections, but I still make a little bit. I haven’t used it yet; it feels like it should go towards something fun and just for me, but I can’t figure out what it should be. Sadly, I did get a tax form for these payments. That’s the government for you; I risked my own health and life for the benefit of everyone and they still want their cut.

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