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Coronavirus vaccine trials: 2 Austin participants share their stories

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman
Judy Breckbill, second from right, shown with her family, was contacted by postcard to participate in the Moderna vaccine trial because of her age.

In recent weeks, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer Inc. and Moderna have released positive news about coronavirus vaccines, both of which are being tested in Austin.

In Austin, about 200 people are enrolled in the Pfizer study through Austin Regional Clinic’s research clinic and about 400 are enrolled in the Moderna study through Benchmark Research.

Pfizer announced on Friday announced it has filed for emergency use authorization with the FDA and other organizations around the world.

In both studies, half of the participants receive the vaccine in two injections a few weeks apart. Half are in the placebo group and receive two injections that are not the vaccine a few weeks apart. They then track their symptoms for two years through an app.

Ray Martinez, 56, signed up for the Pfizer trial after reading about it in the Statesman in August. He emailed the contact listed and was asked to come in on Sept. 27. After a two and a half hour visit, which included reading the lengthy consent form, getting blood work done and a COVID-19 test, Martinez got his first injection.

It felt like a flu shot, he says, actually smoother than that. “These folks are professional,” he says.

Later he had some soreness in his upper arm, and he was tired.

A few weeks later, he went back for the second injection. The next day, he says, he was noticeably tired, and by the afternoon he was in bed with a slight fever of 100.5. He called Austin Regional Clinic and talked to a doctor several times.

During one of their conversations, he says, he was asked if there was any way he had been exposed to COVID-19 at work. He’s a deputy commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and has been going into the office, but he didn’t think so.

The next day he felt better.

A few weeks later, he returned to Austin Regional Clinic for a blood draw and a COVID-19 test. Now he doesn’t have to return to ARC for another six months unless he becomes ill. Weekly, he records whatever symptoms he might have on an app.

He does not know officially if he received the vaccine or the placebo. He believes it was the vaccine based on his symptoms. He’s been told he’ll find out once the vaccine achieves FDA approval.

Pfizer released initial results on Nov. 9 that showed a 90 percent effectiveness. On Wednesday, the company announced a 95 percent effectiveness rate. Of the almost 45,000 people who are participating in this study, Pfizer has 170 confirmed COVID-19 cases; 162 of those were in the placebo group and eight were in the vaccine group.

Martinez he says he’s anxious to know what he received, but “it’s all been a positive experience.”

He enrolled because he knew that Pfizer was looking for more people of color for the study to be more representative.

When he reads the news from Pfizer about efficacy, he says, “That’s encouraging. I hope I got the real thing. To me, the effective rate is great if I have the vaccine already. If it was the placebo, I plan to get the vaccine as soon as possible.”

Judy Breckbill, 74, enrolled in the Moderna trial after getting a postcard in the mail looking for people 65 and older. The retired nurse says she was usually the one to volunteer to be the person her fellow nursing classmates would use to practice procedures.

“That’s sort of my nature,” she says of why she volunteered.

Her first visit in September was five hours long while they went over all her pre-existing conditions, which includes high blood pressure. They downloaded an app for her to track her symptoms, and she received her first injection.

Participants wait 30 minutes after the injection before they are sent home. In Breckbill’s case, her blood pressure went up, and she had to wait a little longer.

At first, she had no side effects, but on the ninth day her arm was itching, and she had a spot that was red and warm to the touch. It grew larger.

“That made me decide I was getting the vaccine,” she says. Before that appeared, she thought she had gotten the placebo. Again, she does not know which is the case.

When she went in for the second injection, they asked her about her symptoms. She had a cough because of allergies, but that meant that she had to do tests for COVID-19. She didn’t have it.

They also didn’t want her to get the second injection because her blood pressure had risen. She’s still part of the study and will provide data if she has had the vaccine on what antibodies there are with just one injection, but she won’t receive a second injection.

She continues to report all of her symptoms, including when she fell and broke her right arm and had to go into the hospital. That’s now part of Moderna’s test records.

Moderna announced on Nov. 16 that its initial results show a 94.5 percent effectiveness rate with 95 COVID-19 cases, 90 of them in the placebo group and five in the vaccine group. In a second batch, all 11 cases were in the placebo group. It has 30,000 people enrolled in its study.

Breckbill says the injection she received felt similar to getting a flu shot.

Being part of the study hasn’t made her do anything different or be any less cautious about exposing herself to the coronavirus.

“They still want you to act responsibly,” she says.

Ray Martinez volunteered for the Pfizer trial to make sure more people of color were represented.