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December 21, 2020

Volunteering in a COVID-19 Vaccine Trial: BRI Team Members Share Their Experience

Without clinical research participants, we might not have groundbreaking cancer treatments like immunotherapy or vaccines for polio, rubella and other life-threatening diseases. BRI researchers know just how important research participants are — and regularly ask people to join research studies and help us find new therapies. 

When BRI became a trial site for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, it gave our researchers and staff a unique opportunity to see the other side of the coin, by signing up to participate in the vaccine trial. We recently asked some of our team members about why they wanted to participate, why they felt the vaccine was safe and what it was like to be on the front lines of a potentially monumental scientific advance.

Steven F Ziegler
Steven Ziegler, PhD

“It’s important to walk the walk”

Steve Ziegler, PhD

Dr. Ziegler is BRI’s director of academic affairs and leads the Ziegler Lab, which studies how the immune system develops and is regulated. He’s worked with samples from clinical trials for years, but until the Pfizer vaccine trial, he’d never participated in one himself.

To join the two-year study, Dr. Ziegler and all other participants gave informed consent, saying they understand the procedure and any potential risks. Like most clinical studies, half of the participants received the vaccine, while half received the placebo (a shot that has no effect on the body) — and participants don’t know which one they were given. Dr. Ziegler happened to be the first person to receive the shot at BRI. 

“It’s important to walk the walk and participate in research when we can,” Dr. Ziegler says. “We need people across the board — age, sex, underlying conditions — to get involved. I’m pushing one of the higher risk groups because of my age and we need the biggest possible dataset to know if the vaccine works. I jumped at the opportunity to get involved.”

Quynh Anh Nguyen
Quynh-Anh Nguyen

“I want to tell people that I work in the field, I trust science and I volunteer”

Quynh-Anh Nguyen

As a lab technician in BRI’s Genomics Core Laboratory, Quynh-Anh frequently studies samples from clinical research participants. Fighting the pandemic became personal after one of her siblings contracted COVID-19. Before joining the trial, she talked to her doctor and researched the vaccine. When she learned the trial was in Phase III and had already been tested on hundreds of people, she decided to sign up.

“Now we’re seeing results from the trial — we need this vaccine and I’m proud to contribute my small part,” she says. “I’m also Asian and ethnic minorities are often underrepresented in these kinds of studies. I wanted to participate so I can tell people ‘I work in the field, I trust science and I volunteer.’ And I encourage others to do the same.”

Karen Cerosaletti
Karen Cerosaletti, PhD

“This is how we generate crucial data for evidence-based medicine”

Karen Cerosaletti, PhD

Dr. Cerosaletti, who directs BRI’s Center for Translational Immunology, was also quick to enroll in the trial.

“As a scientist, I felt I could judge whether the vaccine was likely to be safe,” she says. “Plus, in translational research, all of our work depends on patient participation. This was a way for me to give back — and it's of worldwide importance.”

She knows how crucial this data is to ending the pandemic and is happy to contribute to it.

“This is how scientists learn things — medicine is driven by evidence-based information,” she says. “I participate because I know how important it is to generate good data that scientists can use to draw solid conclusions.”

Mary Roy
Mary Roy

“Anything I can do to help”

Mary Roy

As administrative director of BRI’s largest program, the Immune Tolerance Network (ITN) which runs a multitude of clinical trials globally, Mary is no stranger to informed consent and research protocols. She was impressed by how straightforward it was to sign up and participate in the Pfizer study. She volunteered because she wanted to help fight the pandemic.

“It's easy to feel like there’s nothing you can do,” she says. “This gave me an opportunity to put myself out there and help in a little way.”

She hopes that with FDA approval, people won’t hesitate to take it.

“I’ve heard people say that they won’t get vaccinated because it hasn’t been tested enough — but they have no idea just how much it has been tested,” she says. “That testing is what enables it to get out there and to get through the FDA. I encourage people to read about the vaccine (from trusted sources) and ask questions if they have them.”

Charlie Quinn
Charlie Quinn

“We need, there’s a 50 percent chance you get the vaccine.”

Charlie Quinn

As BRI’s Director of Research Information Systems, Charlie collects and analyzes data for countless studies across BRI.

“We need volunteers, that’s just how science works — and I’m happy to help do whatever I can to help expedite the vaccine process,” Charlie says. “Plus, there’s a 50 percent chance that you get an early copy of the vaccine.”

Knowing that the trial was in Phase III made Charlie comfortable signing up, and he said the whole experience was easy.

“I just got the shot and they needed to watch me for a bit after as part of the trial, so I brought my laptop and did some work,” he says. “We work in science and we understand how this process works. I have friends who are skeptical of the vaccine, and I think this is a good way to demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Featured Bio Erin Greenfield

“I trust scientists. It's that simple.”

Erin Greenfield

Erin, an administrative assistant for safety and regulatory compliance at Virginia Mason, described signing up for the trial as the least she could do. 

“I hardly had to go out of my way and I thought that it was really neat that this research was happening right here on campus,” she says. “I also remembered that my dad had been part of a cancer trial which extended his life. That made it a little more poignant for me.”

She said getting the vaccine was easy and compared it to getting a flu shot. 

“The pandemic is affecting the entire world, everyone can see the impact in their communities,” Erin says. “It's easy to feel helpless. This was a tangible opportunity to do something. I trust scientists. It’s that simple.”

Eddie James
Eddie James, PhD

“Pfizer’s strategy had real benefits for COVID-19 and other viruses that arise.”

Eddie James, PhD

Long before Dr. James was a principal investigator at BRI, he participated in several research studies — including psychological studies in middle school and twin studies with his identical brother.

The James Lab studies the role of T cells in autoimmune disease. Before he signed up for the Pfizer trial, he read everything he could about how the vaccine was designed.

“I read about Pfizer’s strategy and felt that it not only had real benefits for COVID-19, it's also a new type of vaccine that can be used to combat new viruses as they arise,” he says.

He said he had a low fever after receiving the shot, which he described as milder side effects than a flu shot. He found himself imagining the world with a COVID-19 vaccine and, of course, thinking about T cells.

“I had this selfish impulse and got really excited about the idea of actually becoming immune to the virus,” he says. “I also thought about how interesting it would be to study T cell responses to the vaccine.”

In a year like no other, Dr. James is happy to play a small role in this pivotal research and has been inspired by the scientific community’s response to the pandemic.

“As humans, we tend to think about ourselves first,” he says. “But this global crisis gives us the opportunity to adopt a different mindset, and to count the needs of others as important as our own. The scientific community has banded together in this wonderful way to reduce the severity of hospitalized cases and to find a vaccine. With FDA approval, people should feel comfortable taking it.”

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