To demonstrate their confidence in COVID-19 vaccination program, top American health officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci last month rolled up their sleeves and got their first dose of the Moderna vaccine on live television. Millions more in the United States and abroad are expected to do the same in the coming weeks to acquire protection against the virus that has killed more than 1.8 million people globally and wrecked economies.
The rollout is possible in part because of tens of thousands of people who volunteered to take part in fast-tracked trials to verify the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
VICE World News spoke with Jason Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese-American bioengineering PhD graduate who participated in Moderna’s clinical trial during the summer, to find out what it was like. Zhang, who is in South Korea on vacation and to learn Korean, also shared the moment during the trial when he went, “Oh my god, do I need to go to the hospital?”
VICE World News: How did you know about the clinical trial?
Jason Zhang: I remember I was browsing through Facebook in June or July and saw the ads looking for participants in the Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. And I was like: “What is the harm in signing up and just putting in my basic information?” After I signed up, around the end of July, I got a phone call from them asking me my availability for participating in the clinical trial. Back then, I was really excited to participate.
What were the reactions of your parents?
I’ve never been in a clinical trial before. My parents were very worried as Asian parents, or any parents in the world, do. I do remember that before participating in the trial, I talked to my family about the trial. My parents said: “Why do you want to do the vaccine? Your life is very precious. It’s okay if other people take the vaccine. We really want you to stay safe.”
Why did you take part in the trial?
One of the big things that motivated me to take part in the trial is how much the virus has affected everyone’s life and how disruptive it has been. I think it’s helping us move on.
One of the big things that motivated me to take part in the trial is how much the virus has affected everyone’s life. I think it’s helping us move on.
I did a lot of research into understanding what the vaccines are and what the side effects are. Researchers did publish a paper after conducting a first-in-human Phase 1 clinical trial in the New England Journal of Medicine. Because I’m in the biology field, I decided to read up on the paper and they listed their side effects and what people experienced. So I thought that It wasn’t anything super harmful and also was reading about how the vaccine works.
There are two major mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines, one developed by Pfizer and the other by Moderna. (To trigger an immune response, many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. Not mRNA vaccines. Instead, they teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies.)
I thought that it was both an exciting time to help make this new technology prove that it’s effective for infectious disease. And understanding how this technology has a lot of benefits in terms of cost, versatility, and safety.
I thought benefits outweigh the risks and that’s why I decided to participate in the trial.
Were you not afraid of getting infected?
In terms of getting infected, there were some vaccines in the past used as a dead virus. I believe the polio vaccine in the 1950s that used an inactivated form of the virus. And there were some manufacturing problems in the 1950s where some people actually got the polio virus instead of getting only the dead virus. And that’s allowed for problems.
But this mRNA technology you are only getting genetic information and a genetic blueprint for one of the most important proteins of the coronavirus. So since you’re only getting like one small portion out of maybe eleven proteins. I think on coronavirus that therefore you’re not getting the whole thing. There’s a low possibility that you’re going to get the live virus accidentally.
Understanding that technology made me more confident that I’m not going to experience anything too bad, reading the paper in identifying the side effects, and also because I’m relatively young that I didn’t have to worry too much that I’m going to have the severe symptoms from COVID-19.
Can you take us through the process?
For both Moderna and Pfizer, you have to take two shots. For the Moderna one, I took the first shot in August and the second shot in September. And for both those appointments, they drew your basic vitals, blood pressures, height, and weight. They gave me a COVID-19 test, drew my blood, and then gave me an experimental vaccine. Note that there are two groups: there are some who get the control of the placebo and who actually get the vaccine.
So we don’t know who gets the actual vaccine. But I’m pretty sure that I got the actual vaccine because I got some COVID-like symptoms for a night after my second shot. I got the test vaccine and then after that I was in the waiting room for 30 minutes and for the week after getting the vaccine every day I had to put in my health information on a mobile app and also took my temperature. So that happened for both the first and second visit.
On the first visit, I didn’t really feel that much besides maybe pain at the injection site a little bit. But at this after the second visit, after getting the second shot, I developed some COVID-like symptoms. So I felt like I had a fever but when I took my temperature I didn’t really have a fever. I felt fatigued. And also the most prominent thing was that I got chills like my teeth were clattering and my body was so shaking. It wasn’t like seizure level shaking but I felt a shaking and that lasted for about five minutes. At some point, I thought: “Oh my god, do I need to go to the hospital?”. But it only lasted for five minutes and after that night, I didn’t feel any more COVID-like symptoms. So I thought I got the actual vaccine.
The most prominent thing was that I got chills like my teeth were clattering and my body was so shaking.
How did the vaccine change your life? Are you still wearing a face mask?
First of all, vaccines are not 100 percent effective. There’s no drug that is 100 percent effective. But it’s still actually that vaccines have one of the highest effectiveness. Although media reports on the news that the Moderna vaccine has 94 to 95 percent effective, it’s still the preliminary data and there’s five percent who are not effective. So even after I took the vaccine, I still wear a mask because I’m not sure that I’m actually immune to COVID-19.
Secondly, even if you’re immune to COVID-19, you could still spread the virus. You wouldn’t get sick yourself but you do have a possibility that you could still spread the virus. The likelihood of your spread probably decreases, but the data is still to be seen for that.
So I don’t think my life has changed too much after getting the vaccine. I still wear a mask, try to do social distancing, and wash my hands a lot. I think all of those are necessary in order for us to get over COVID-19. Maybe I feel a little bit more confident to go outside than other average people. I do feel I have immunity but I also understand that even if I have immunity I can still spread it so I should still be very conscious of other people.
What do you think about the anti-vaccine movement?
I’ve definitely heard about the controversial people. I think the huge portion of the anti vaccine movement talks about how vaccines can cause autism. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no link between vaccines and autism.)
As a scientist, our responsibility is to communicate these new technologies. I feel responsible to communicate the science and to educate people about how vaccines are made and how vaccines are going to affect you and the pros and cons of vaccines.
If you have questions about how vaccines work, read up on Google and trust reliable sources. Don’t trust those crazy websites, and use medical journals for the most part. If you care about your health, you should take the time to read up about it. I encourage people to listen to scientists, not politicians, in order to get educated about vaccines.
I encourage people to listen to scientists, not politicians, in order to get educated about vaccines.
Since you came to South Korea, what have you discovered?
There’s a definitely huge cultural difference in terms of how different countries are dealing with COVID-19. I think East Asian countries are generally doing very well in terms of having people wear a face mask and doing social distancing. And everyone is very conscientious of each other about cleanness. I would say 99 percent of people in South Korea wear masks while in the United States maybe like 60 or 70 percent of people wear masks. I think California has a higher percentage than lots of different places in the United States. That was a big difference is how much people are more careful and have diligence in terms of COVID-19.
Would you recommend your family to get vaccinated?
Yes of course.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.