Several drugmakers are in the midst of testing experimental vaccines against the novel coronavirus, with some companies enrolling tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials taking place throughout the world. Here's what it's like to be a test subject in the trials, according to participants.
Some adverse reactions, but it's 'a lot less dramatic than people might think'
Ian Haydon and his mother, Judy Stokes, are participating in clinical trials on Moderna's coronavirus vaccine candidate. Haydon is involved in a phase 1 trial that does not involve a placebo, so he knew he was receiving the vaccine candidate. Stokes is participating in a double-blind placebo phase 2/3 trial, so she is unaware of whether she received the vaccine candidate or a placebo.
Haydon, who is a science communications manager at the University of Washington, told Elemental's Alexandra Sifferlin that participating in the phase 1 clinical trial is "a lot less dramatic than people might think."
Haydon said that, after receiving the vaccine candidate, he now must visit a vaccine research clinic once per week, where workers take a blood sample. "[A]side from those brief trips to the clinic, there's not much else to do," he said.
But Haydon also logs any health issues he develops, which potentially could be side effects associated with the experimental vaccine. And after receiving his second dose of the vaccine candidate, Haydon said his possible side effects were pretty rough.
According to Haydon, about 12 hours after receiving his second dose of the experimental vaccine, he started feeling chills. Later, he woke up in the middle of the night with a fever that spiked to 103.2 degrees. He also experienced nausea, headache, muscle fatigue, and other symptoms.
After calling Moderna's 24-hour call line to report the symptoms, Haydon sought care at an urgent care clinic. Providers at the clinic gave Haydon fluids and Tylenol, and then sent him home.
But after Haydon woke up the next morning, he vomited and fainted. He spent the remainder of the day resting, and his symptoms eventually ceased.
"[I]t seems that for about 24 hours I had basically too high of an immune response, probably as a result of that high dose of the vaccine that I was testing," Haydon said. "[A]nd going forward that high dose is not being tested anymore."
In comparison, Stokes' experience has been much milder. She's received two shots, though she's unaware of whether the shots contained doses of the experimental vaccine or of a placebo. Now, researchers will monitor Stokes for two years, taking blood samples to determine whether she has an immune response.
Stokes also been tracking any health issues she's experienced through an app, and she receives weekly check-in calls from researchers. Stokes said she experienced some adverse reactions to her injections, but they weren't nearly as severe as Haydon's.
"[M]y first shot was not a problem," Stokes said. "The arm was very sore, but that was it. After the second one, the arm was even more sore. And I did have a day of reporting muscle aches and fatigue."
Other participants in clinical trials for coronavirus vaccine candidates have reported symptoms similar to Haydon's, including three other participants enrolled in Moderna's trials and two participants in trials testing Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine candidate, who were interviewed by CNBC. Four of those participants asked to remain anonymous.
Luke Hutchison, who is participating in one of Moderna's trials, told CNBC's Christina Farr and Berkeley Lovelace that he felt sick with a low-grade fever after receiving his first shot. Then, eight hours after getting his second shot about a month later, he ended up stuck in bed with a fever that was higher than 101 degrees and lasted five hours, shakes, chills, a headache, and shortness of breath.
Hutchison also said that the area on his arm where he received the shot felt like a "goose egg on my shoulder." However, after 12 hours, his symptoms subsided.
Another Moderna trial participant who asked to remain anonymous said she didn't experience a fever, but she did have a bad migraine for about a day. The participant said she felt better the following day, after taking some headache medicine. The participant said she and other Moderna participants belong to a private Facebook group, and others have reported similar symptoms.
"If this proves to work, people are going to have to toughen up," the participant said. "The first dose is no big deal. And then the second dose will definitely put you down for the day for sure. ... You will need to take a day off after the second dose," she added.
A participant in a Pfizer coronavirus vaccine trial who asked to remain anonymous said he was awake all night after his first shot because of pain at the injection site. He said he then experienced intense flu-like symptoms, and he was shaking so hard that his teeth were chattering, which resulted in him cracking a tooth.
But the participant said he thinks contracting the novel coronavirus would be much more dangerous for many people. "If [a vaccine] gets approved, I still think a lot of people should get the vaccine," he said. However, he added, "I hope that all the side effects are made clear upfront."
Clearing up misconceptions—and urging confidence
Hutchison said he chose to speak out about his experience because he's concerned that drugmakers haven't yet made public the potential side effects associated with their coronavirus vaccine candidates. Hutchison said he fears there could be widespread backlash if people are unaware of the possible side effects before they receive a coronavirus vaccine, if one is approved.
Separately, both Haydon and Stokes said they've been frustrated with comments they've heard about coronavirus vaccine trials being rushed by drugmakers.
"[T]his is going to go on for a year and a half for me," Stokes said. "And so some of the talk about rushing vaccines and making sure we have one this fall is kind of annoying, I guess, and disappointing to me. Because I think the data that I'm providing as I'm followed is crucial to the success of the whole vaccine, that everyone may end up taking."
Haydon added, "This is an accelerated process, and everyone's talking about how fast vaccine development is going, but I can certainly say, as somebody who was in the earliest trial, at no point, did I ever feel like I was being rushed."
Haydon said he thinks there are some people who are going to "writ[e] off the first coronavirus vaccine that comes out" because they want to "wait and see how it goes for other people."
He said he understands that perspective, but Haydon added, "[S]peaking as someone in the phase 1 trial and as someone whose mom is in a phase 3, … these trials are happening very quickly, but they're happening. They're real trials. And we're real people in them. And I'm somebody who did experience side effects. And those were documented. And those influenced the trial."
Ultimately, Haydon said he believes in the work being done to develop and evaluate coronavirus vaccine candidates.
"[T]he fact that the research is being done in a responsible way leaves me confident, at least to the work that's been done to this date," he said. "I hope that that continues. I hope that, especially around the [general] election, that that scientific integrity isn't compromised for the sake of politics. But to date, I don't think that it has been. And so, people should feel, I think, confident about that" (Sifferlin, Elemental, 9/30; Farr/Lovelace, CNBC, 10/1).