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Tales from the Covid-19 Vaccine Trials: Five Participants Share Their Stories

January 7, 2021

Michigan played an important role in clinical trials for the Covid-19 vaccine due to its diversity and renowned health care facilities. Five Detroiters share why they decided to step up in the name of science 

Editor’s note: When we began reporting this story  last fall, the actual Covid-19 vaccine was still a distant hope — one that came true just days before we went to press in mid-December. The Pfizer vaccine was granted Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration about a week before our issue went to the printer; the Moderna vaccine was given EUA as we went to press. As of this writing on January 6, more than 152,000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been administered across Michigan. This story pays homage to the courageous individuals who helped make the vaccine a reality. — Nicole Frehsee Mazur

By Gabriella Burman

Photography by Brett Mountain

The year 2020 will be remembered, in large part, as the year of the coronavirus. As of this writing, Covid-19 has claimed more than 1.6 million lives worldwide, with over 300,000 in the U.S. and 11,000 in Michigan. Thankfully, the new year promises relief: As of press time, the first doses of a vaccine produced by Pfizer were en route to sites across the country, with wide distribution on deck for 2021. (Moderna’s vaccine may also be greenlit in the coming days.) But before any vaccine could be approved, Detroit participants in clinical trials played an important role in ensuring that the inoculations perform as hoped.

In November, biotech giants Pfizer and Moderna released early studies showing their Phase III clinical trials to be 95% effective in preventing the virus that causes Covid-19. Two other trials, run by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, resumed in late October after it was determined that illnesses in a few participants were not related to the vaccines.

Begun in July, the Pfizer trial enrolled 44,000 participants worldwide, 175 of whom were in Michigan, while the Moderna trial counted 30,000 participants in the U.S., including more than 700 in Michigan, making the state one of the highest enrolled sites in the country. Henry Ford Health System is also now recruiting for the Johnson and Johnson ENSEMBLE trial.

Investigators say Michigan has played an important role in the overall trials because of its diverse population and renowned health care institutions. “It was a priority to successfully recruit minority representation,” says Dr. Steven Katzman, who led the Pfizer trial out of the Michigan Center for Medical Research in Farmington Hills. “So many of the early deaths fell on the African-American community. It was important for them to be included.”

Likewise, “Henry Ford’s diversity of patient population, the experience of its staff in clinical trials, the fact that Michigan was an early hot spot, and the hospital system’s work in the community with vulnerable populations are factors in Moderna choosing HFHS as a partner for the trial,” says Dr. Marcus Zervos, head of HFHS’ infectious disease division and the principal investigator on the Moderna Phase III Covid-19 vaccine trial in Detroit.

“One of the things that we’re very grateful about is the participation of residents from around Detroit and Southeast Michigan,” says Dr. Paul Kilgore, a HFHS co-principal investigator. “Their participation now is crucial in our long-term battle against Covid-19. They literally are helping to save lives into the future.”

For both the Pfizer and Moderna trials, half of participants received a placebo while the other half received two doses of the vaccine approximately a month apart (the trials delivered mRNA, a genetic material, into human cells to prompt the production of coronavirus proteins and elicit an immune response). Participants will be followed for about two years to see if the immunization prevents them from contracting Covid-19 or reduces the illness’ severity.

Dr. Wendy Sadoff, a Farmington Hills dermatologist, helped recruit volunteers for the Pfizer trial. “You want people who make a well-thought-out decision,” she says. “Every modern medicine that has gained approval results from well-run studies. This is [how we] move things forward at a time of great helplessness.”

If the vaccine brings a sense of normalcy, an extraordinary debt of gratitude will be owed to the thousands of participants who have volunteered to stem the largest public health threat in our lifetime. Meet five Metro Detroiters who chose to step up for the collective good.

coronavirus vaccine trial

Jim Warren was on hold with his film-industry job when he decided to sign up for a trial. “I wanted to do something positive,” he says.

Jim Warren, 57, Berkley
Trial: Pfizer

I’m a set decorator for the film industry. I was working on a Netflix movie in Ohio when the pandemic started to spread. I was sitting in my apartment in Cleveland, and I wanted to do something positive to make a difference. I learned about the Pfizer trial, contacted the Michigan Center of Medical Research and did my research. The vaccine tricks the body into creating Covid-19 antibodies to fight off infection. 

I drove to Detroit for my first injection, and then for my second. I had a third blood draw in October, and five months later, I will be evaluated again. It’s a waiting game. I am a petri dish! But I’ve had no side effects, and no Covid, either. 

I did this out of altruism but also, we’re all just treading water until there is a vaccine. I hope I got it and not the placebo, and that it keeps me safe for awhile. I think we’re going to look back on this time like our grandparents did with polio. There wasn’t much you could do then to avoid polio. Just like now, the best solution was to stay home and avoid exposure. But I get to be part of the eradication of Covid. How cool is that?

coronavirus vaccine trial

Cathy Fridson was unable to join social justice marches last summer, but she felt inspired to “take action” somehow in 2020.

Cathy Fridson, 71, Huntington Woods
Trial: Moderna

There were a lot of things happening this year that inspired me to take action socially and otherwise. I wanted to march with the Black Lives movement, but I couldn’t because I was recovering from foot surgery. I saw the Moderna trial advertised in the local news with a link to register, and I felt it was
something I could do.

I had a blood draw and injection in August and September, and another blood draw in October. Now, unless I have a problem they don’t want to see me for three months. I’ve had no side effects so far, which makes me think I might have had the placebo. But it’s still data. 

You do receive compensation for participating, but that’s not the reason to do something like this. I have a son in New York who I haven’t seen in a year. I would like to see him. My family takes pride in what I am doing. There wouldn’t be a vaccine unless people participated. I am happy to be doing this.  

coronavirus vaccine trial

Dr. Kellie McFarlin signed up for the trial after her 5-year-old cousin became the first child in Michigan to die of Covid-19.

Dr. Kellie McFarlin, 46, Detroit
Trial: Moderna

Early in the pandemic, my cousin, Skylar Herbert, age 5, became the first child in Michigan to die of Covid-19. In feeling hopeless in that situation, participating in the trial was a way for me to take some action for my hard-hit African-American community. I’m also a surgeon and the mom of 4-year-old twins and I wanted to show up in the demographics of the study to see if it works for my hard-hit population. As a scientist, I also understand the research. 

The trial has been going well; it’s hard to know if I’ve been given the vaccine or the placebo. I think you can talk your way into thinking one way or the other. I was excited to hear the news about the efficacy of the study, but we still have to mask up, social distance and wash hands. We can’t let our guards down. 

I am hopeful that if people are apprehensive about the vaccine that they can get answers to their questions and be willing to take it. Everything has happened quickly in the development of this vaccine, but I don’t view it as risky. Rather, it shows me how amazing science has become at this point in time. 

coronavirus vaccine trial

Andrea Gruber is excited that her contribution to science will make her “a part of history.”

Andrea Gruber, 61, Southfield
Trial: Moderna

I live in a household of essential workers. My husband is chief of staff at the VA Hospital in Detroit. My daughter is studying to become a nurse practitioner, and my other daughter is a behavioral therapist for children with special needs. It’s not that I am brave [but] I know the vaccine doesn’t contain live virus; it’s a replica of the virus. I’ve had the first and second injections. So far I am feeling great! 

For those of us who are being responsible, following the rules and staying at home, a vaccine is the only hope to put our lives back on track. If we get the vaccine, we will be protected. I’m excited to hear about the success of both studies. I will be part of history. One day, my grandkids will get up in class, and say, “My grandmother…”

coronavirus vaccine trial

Marla Kaminsky saw participating in the trials as a way to “repair the world…a way to step up and give something of myself.”

Marla Kaminsky, 45, former Detroiter living in Memphis
Trial: Pfizer

There are many ways to repair the world — we can give our money, our time, our hands — but this was something different: a way to step up and give something of myself. Without the volunteers across the country, this vaccine isn’t going to get to people quickly. So why not me? 

After my first injection, I ran a fever for about five hours. I suspect I was given the vaccine based on that, but I won’t know until the study is unblinded. Even so, I’ve never second-guessed myself. I feel like I am in a movie — and we’re finally at the part where the problem is starting to get solved. For the first time, I feel some hopefulness that has been absent. And it’s because people are stepping up.” 

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