I volunteered to test the Moderna coronavirus vaccine. Here's what the experience was like — and why it's given me hope for the world.

  • Journalist Elle Hardy is taking part in a phase-three trial of Moderna's mRNA-1273 vaccine, which just announced it's 94.5% effective against coronavirus.
  • The federal government announced in August that it would spend $1.53 billion to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine, with an option to purchase up to 400 million additional doses.
  • After a slight reaction to the two doses, Hardy said she was certain she didn't receive a placebo. 
  • A recent antibody test confirmed she's positive, and she thinks this is due to the vaccine.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The opportunity came my way and I didn't hesitate.

I wish I could say that I signed up for the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine trial out of some sense of public service. But my first response when I was asked to take part in the trial was, "Hell yes," because I wanted a chance to get some protection from the coronavirus as soon as possible.

My participation in the trial came about because a couple of years ago I did a medical trial for an anthrax vaccine with a company called Benchmark Research when I was broke. I'd completely forgotten about it, but they called me in May to say that the study was over and that I'd been given the placebo.

The doctor on the phone told me that they were finalizing an agreement for an urgent trial of a vaccine for "you know what." They couldn't release information at that time, but they needed to quickly vet and enroll 30,000 subjects across multiple sites in the United States. 

I jumped at it. I'd been in South Korea in February researching the religious group that was the source of the major outbreak in the country and managed to escape infection. I returned back to my native Australia for the initial lockdown, but after a few months I needed to return to the US for work. 

In all of my travels, I'd somehow managed to avoid getting sick (as far as I could tell), but didn't want to keep riding my luck. Coming from a country with universal healthcare, an American hospital bill terrifies me as much as contracting the virus itself.

The science behind the vaccine is interesting.

The Moderna vaccine isn't a live virus, but replicates a similar immune response in our bodies. It uses messenger RNA (mRNA), which is a molecule that instructs our bodies to make coronavirus spike proteins as though they'd been infected. In time, this produces antibodies in our system that look like the ones produced by people who've had the virus.

The aim of the trial is to determine whether the vaccine prevents people from catching COVID-19 or lessens the severity for people who do. The vaccine moved from the lab to human trials in a record 63 days. Early trials showed it was safe for human use, and that there were indications that it produced neutralizing antibodies in some of the patients. 

I wasn't concerned about receiving an experimental drug. I knew that scientists had been researching this type of virus since the SARS outbreak in 2002, and had decoded the COVID-19 genome in January. In spite of political and market pressure, I can't see pharmaceutical companies blowing up their reputations by pushing forward with a vaccine that's dangerous to humans.

The medical trial process is quite strict.

Before I got the jab, I had to go through a lot of checks to make sure I was in good health for an experimental (at this stage) treatment. They went through my medical history, reviewed my medications, took my blood pressure and pulse, gave me a pregnancy test, and took eight vials of blood. They monitor its effects by blood samples throughout the trial.

The side effects were a little unpleasant, but nowhere near as bad as they could be getting COVID-19.

I didn't feel 100% for a few days after the first shot. It felt like that day or two when you're on the cusp of getting the flu, but it didn't interfere with my work or life. My upper left arm where the shot was put into was swollen and incredibly sore for days. I couldn't lie on it or even pick up a cup of coffee with that hand. I had a similar reaction to the MMR vaccine in high school, so I began to think that I'd definitely received the mRNA shot and not the placebo.

After about four days, all of the symptoms disappeared. The booster shot 28 days later had similar effects, but they went away more quickly, within about 48 hours.

My curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to get an antibody test to see if my suspicions were correct. I'd had one earlier in the summer and it came back negative. This time, it came back positive. Of course, I can't be certain that it was from the vaccine, but I haven't had any COVID-19 symptoms and neither has anyone in my social bubble.

It's good news, but I'm not changing the way I act.

I was thrilled to know that I have antibodies, but I'm still taking all of the usual precautions, especially around wearing a mask and avoiding unventilated spaces. It's just a basic decency to be considerate to others around you. 

Furthermore, the presence of antibodies doesn't mean that you're bulletproof — the whole point of the vaccine trial is to figure out whether the shot works to prevent the coronavirus. Plus, antibodies may recede over time or not be an absolute barrier to infection. Still, it's given me hope that there's an end in sight for all of us.

My concern is that some media outlets will sensationalize any problems with the vaccine, such as what we saw in England recently when a subject in the Oxford vaccine trial became ill and the trial was briefly paused. People should be informed, but I suspect that any stories to do with vaccine timing will get a lot of clicks, and we live in a time where misinformation spreads as fast as coronavirus.

I hope that my experience gives people hope that we can get through this.

There's research that indicates that one third of Americans don't want to take the vaccine. I've had friends who aren't anti-vaxxers tell me this — they're concerned that a cure is being rushed out to help with the election or get people back to work.

What worries me more than any side effects of the vaccine is that, given how much more we know about the virus and the ways it spreads now, we still aren't being particularly targeted and effective when it comes to testing and tracing. 

Nor have the best ways to stay safe been well communicated. It took us months to learn that masks and ventilated spaces are critical to stopping the spread. We also don't seem to be doing much about super-spreader events and cluster busting. Many Asian countries are really good at this, and consequently have managed the pandemic far better than the United States.

As one of few people who's experienced the pandemic response in several countries, I have no doubt that the US has handled it worse than most, and that it's cost lives. We can only hope that governments and agencies can come together to administer the vaccine quickly and give people the confidence to get the shot when it comes — which may be widely available as soon as March 2021, according to the Moderna CEO.

This article was originally published on Business Insider October 13, 2020. It has been updated with new information.

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