“There was a constant fear that their turn would come soon,” said Anil Hebbar, a 56-year-old in Mumbai, describing the coronavirus surge in the city two months ago. “My mother is 85 years old. She is a cancer patient and has undergone two surgeries.”
Currently, India has more than 9 million reported COVID-19 cases, close to the figures in the United States. When the virus started spreading in the country, Mumbai quickly emerged as a hub for infection. So far, the pandemic has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the city.
Hebbar, who runs a medical equipment firm, has lost more than 10 people known to him to the virus, including one of his close friends, who died in September. “I was with him in the ICU when he passed away,” recalled Hebbar. His wife, a professor in a Mumbai college, also lost a 23-year-old student to the virus.
In early October, one of his friends told him that the six-month trial for the second and third phase of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University was going on at a Mumbai hospital, and they were falling short of around 50 participants. Wanting to help end the trail of death he personally witnessed, and without announcing his intention to his family, Hebbar contacted the hospital and agreed to become a vaccine volunteer.
Besides the willingness to do his bit to combat the virus, it was curiosity that motivated him. He runs a charitable trust and was working with his team to arrange ration and run community kitchens in some of Mumbai’s slums during the nationwide lockdown. He also conducted training programs for paramedics on the usage of ventilators and detecting COVID-19 symptoms. Hebbar was both relieved and puzzled to not contract the virus despite “being out, eating everywhere and mingling with people” from varied backgrounds. He was curious about “getting experimented upon.”
A health worker collects a swab sample from a man for Rapid Antigen Test at a testing centre in in India. Photo courtesy Dipendu Dutta/AFP.
Once a hospital or research institute gets the approval to conduct trials, it advertises for volunteers in newspapers and online. Those willing to volunteer can also scan the centralised registry (called the clinical trial registry of India).
Currently, trials at the Serum Institute of India (which partnered with AstraZeneca to manufacture its COVID-19 vaccine), Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila are in various stages in the country.
They have different parameters, such as age and underlying health conditions, to determine if a person is eligible to participate. Volunteers for one trial are not eligible for another because of the risk of cross-contamination.
On the morning of Oct. 6, Hebbar drove to the hospital. After a few tests, he was declared eligible and signed a consent form. He also informed his colleagues about it in a Facebook post and said he knows about six others who also agreed to take part.
Hebbar got the first shot of a vaccine on Oct. 8. One of his colleagues, also a COVID-19 vaccine volunteer, accompanied him. He had to rest for around 30 minutes, and his blood pressure was checked before and after vaccination. The entire process took roughly an hour. “I felt a bit tired for the next 3-4 days,” he said. Hebbar normally goes to bed by 1 am but in those few days, he felt sleepy by 9.30 pm, he said. “The feeling is the one that you have before you get a fever.”
The procedure was repeated on Nov. 6 when Hebbar got his second vaccine shot.
On Friday, Dec. 4, Hebbar went to the hospital for a routine check-up.
After he took the first shot, Hebbar told his family that he was one among 1,600 volunteers who have received the dose and will remain under observation. “I did not want to tell them before. I did not know what their reaction would be,” he said.
While Pfizer and Moderna vaccines inject part of the virus' genetic code into patients, the Oxford vaccine uses a common cold virus that has been modified to carry the coronavirus’ spike protein.
Earlier this week, the Serum Institute of India filed INR 1 billion ($13.5 million) defamation suit against a trial participant in South India for alleging that the vaccine dose caused him “serious side effects.” The participant alleged that undergoing the trials caused a “neurological and psychological” breakdown that impaired his cognitive abilities.
Reacting to the controversy, Hebbar said that as a vaccine volunteer, he was “prepared for anything.”
However, he believes that as an ethical measure, the vaccine manufacturer should have stopped the trial just out of caution. “This is a strong-arm tactic and is not in good taste,” he said. “By continuing the trial, aren’t they putting participants at risk?”
For those feeling COVID-19 fatigue, Hebbar said, “This is going to stay for some time. Please have patience.”
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