This summer, Jonathan Penman, 24, a college student at the University of Nebraska Omaha, enrolled in a clinical trial of an experimental vaccine for COVID-19.
The virus, he said, was a wake-up call.
“I did the vaccine trial because I have a couple of grandmothers who live at our family’s home, and my mom works in a preschool,” Penman told Healthline. “There are people close to me who are susceptible to the virus.”
Penman is a participant in the phase 2 trial of mRNA-1273, a vaccine candidate from Moderna, a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Penman had to drive only a few minutes from his apartment in Omaha to take part in the trial at Meridian Clinical Research.
He received the second of two vaccine injections 2 weeks ago.
“I was the first one in the Omaha area to do this trial,” he said. “So far, so good. I’m a little tired from the second injection. There’s a little malaise, but that’s about it.”
Penman thinks that no matter what happens, he made the right decision.
“I think it’s certainly possible that this could save my life. But we, of course, have no way of knowing,” he said.
Penman is grateful that his girlfriend, Morgan, and his friends were supportive of his decision to enter the trial.
“I ran this by my girlfriend, who is in nursing school, and she was like, ‘Yeah, if you think you should, do it, go for it’,” he said.
“We have had lot of discussions about this. A few people we know and in my family are anti-vaccine. So, it is a conflict, but not anything major,” he added.
Friends with COVID-19
Penman said he has friends who’ve had COVID-19.
“I have encouraged people on my Facebook page to do the trial because it’s the right thing to do. I also encourage them to please wear a mask,” he said.
Penman said that thankfully, no one close to him has died from the virus.
“I have no idea if I have been exposed or not,” he said. “But as part of the trial, they have done the swabs. Had I been exposed, that would have showed up there.”
The first COVID-19 test he took was before the vaccination, just to make sure he didn’t have it.
“It came back negative, so I took the first shot,” he said. “They did my vital signs, it was all good. Then a month later, we did the same thing, and again it was negative.”
Penman said the trial wasn’t intrusive. But he checked it out before he went through with it.
“I Googled it, and the whole concept of the trial works. It makes sense,” he said. “It’s not just a typical vaccination. It attacks the RNA and DNA structure of the virus. That is serious bioengineering. That’s pretty cool.”
Moderna is deploying its so-called mRNA platform to develop its vaccine.
While most vaccines use injected viruses to initiate an antibody response, Moderna’s technology uses viral genetic material — RNA — to produce the antigens that allow the body to learn to respond to the novel coronavirus.
Moderna is testing to see if its vaccine can help the immune system produce effective antibodies against the virus so that, in case of infection, the virus doesn’t cause illness.
As of September 11, more than 23,000 people were enrolled in Moderna’s phase 3 trial.
All participants will be given an injection — half of them with the vaccine, half of them with a placebo. Each group is given a second injection 28 days later.
The total participant enrollment plan for the trial is 30,000.
Why has Moderna been able to make it to a phase 3 trial with relative speed compared with some of the larger U.S. pharmaceutical companies?
“Our mRNA platform was already built. It gave us speed,” Ray Jordan, Moderna’s chief corporate affairs officer, told Healthline.
“We began making doses for 30,000 participants when we were still in a phase 1 trial,” Jordan said. “It looked like it was not smart fiscal management. But you take that risk so you can move that much more rapidly.”
Jordan explained that the company has been working on vaccines using this technology for a decade. The company has nine vaccine candidates in development against everything from respiratory infections to infections transmitted from mother to baby.
Jordan noted that more than 1,900 participants have been enrolled in Moderna’s infectious disease vaccine trials in the United States, Europe, and Australia. These are trials other than the one for the novel coronavirus.
“People say that we got the virus into the clinic in 63 days. But it’s really been 10 years and 63 days,” Jordan said.
When it comes to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, no one knows for sure what will happen in the coming months or even years.
But there’s increasing though guarded optimism in the scientific community that there will be a vaccine or more than one that’s effective.
President Trump has said he wants to develop a vaccine as soon as possible, even if the phase 3 trials aren’t completed. In early August, Trump said he was “optimistic” that a vaccine would be ready by Election Day on November 3.
Late last month, Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said his agency could consider emergency use authorization or approval for a COVID-19 vaccine before phase 3 trials are complete.
But the chief executive officers at nine of the largest Western pharmaceutical companies with a vaccine being studied wrote a letter pledging that in their efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, they won’t take shortcuts and will adhere to the scientific process.
“We, the undersigned biopharmaceutical companies, want to make clear our on-going commitment to developing and testing potential vaccines for COVID-19 in accordance with high ethical standards and sound scientific principles,” the pledge reads.
The executives who signed the pledge are from Moderna, AstraZeneca, BioNTech, Pfizer, Novavax, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck.
Explaining why they wrote the letter, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, DVM, PhD, told NBC News, “We saw it as critical to come out and reiterate our commitment that we will develop our products, our vaccines, using the highest ethical standards and the most scientific processes.”
COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials are also being run by such companies as CanSino Biologics, Inovio, Sinovac, Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, CureVac, and Clover Biopharmaceuticals.
Russia and China are also developing vaccines.
Penman’s future looks bright
Penman is optimistic about the possibilities of having a COVID-19 vaccine relatively soon.
Meanwhile, his eyes are firmly focused on the future.
Penman wants to get a federal emergency management position. He plans to join the National Guard and is trying to get a commission through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
“I’m going to try to get an officer position in the government. I would like to work in Homeland Security. But honestly, whatever is available,” he said.
Penman has developed an interest in the concept of government intervention and public health since he decided to enroll in the clinical trial.
“I’m just curious about it,” he said. “Will the vaccine be mandatory? And what does that say about civil liberties? To what extent will government make it mandatory?”
Penman said he has been reading lately about how the United States is one of the only countries where people are protesting the wearing of masks.
“It’s interesting. We are pretty defensive in this country about our liberties,” he said.
“But I encourage people to do the right thing. I encourage people to wear a mask. I have been exposed. I’ve had friends around me who have gotten it. But some people just don’t take it seriously.”