By Sarah Helps . . .
A Sunday morning lying in bed with papers, coffee, comfort, sunshine, nowhere to go and nothing of usual life to do. Radio 4 plays a news story about a call for volunteers for the Oxford vaccine trial. I want to do something, to act, to help, be useful, to be less bored. I like science, I love research, I like experimentation. I find the application number and call and leave my details.
Later that day, when I’m outside sweeping the patio, I get a phone call from the trial team. They describe what’s involved and ask if I’m NHS, can I guarantee I’m not pregnant, am I on any other vaccine trials, do I still see patients in-person? Do I understand that this is an experimental vaccine? Yes, all Yes. I’m less interested in their detailed descriptions of the trial protocol and more interested in just getting on with it. Having a chance to be protected from this world-changing, physical-distance expanding spiky invisible thing seems worth some risk.
I’m invited into the hospital for the next step. A few days pass and I cycle to the hospital, so happy to have a legitimate reason to leave the house. I finally arrive at the research lab buried deep and high in the hospital, have my temperature taken, enter the lab, am given a sticky-plastic hospital bracelet and then a hospital bed with crinkly sheets and a view of the sparkling Thames. I am asked more questions. I pee in a small test-tube. Again I pass all the tests: I’m not pregnant, I’m properly NHS, I’m potentially exposed on a regular basis. I skim-read the pages of the new information and consent forms and then giggle while watching the video of Dr Amir Khan, the lively bhangra-dancing GP, teach me how to do a self-swab.
And then I’m in – I’m a real, proper research participant. My health-privilege shines bright, my body can explore this drug now so that your body can benefit from it later.
Next week comes, and again I cycle in, pausing to stare at the Thames, quiet and still, shiny, looking even cleaner than before. I’m reconsented because the trial information has changed, the evidence-base has grown after someone in a different country might have got sick after having the vaccine. I don’t actually read the papers this time, placing my faith in the ChAdOx1 doctors who put this whole thing together.
Then the nurse disappears and returns with a syringe. Neither she nor I know what’s in it, placebo or world-saving gold dust. We laugh and joke and guess at what I’m getting. Smooth injection, small plaster, and I’m done.
The weekend involves unanticipated and bizarre lurching symptoms in head and body in the middle of Sainsbury’s which see me abandoning my half-full trolley, rushing home and stumbling to bed.
The ongoing life of a research participant is thankfully busy. There’s the weekly throat and nose swabs ( I get quite skilled at these despite the gurly gaggy noises produced as I dig around at the back of my throat and nose), the monthly blood tests and check-ups, the emails containing FAQs summarising the updating evidence. I pour over these, absorbing more detail than I know what to do with. I also check, like and retweet the small stories of being a research participant I find littering Twitter.
I need a booster of the vaccine. It seems that someone did the dose-maths wrong at the start of the trial. So I cycle in before work to be injected again, and ride to work with my small round plaster of vaccine honour.
Into August, as lockdown eases, my weekly trial tasks add to the working, baking and cycling that keeps me safe and sane. Life remains largely small and local. I’m organised around my weekly swabs, the Friday afternoon rush to the post office with my small flat grey cardboard box, and the anxious wait for the text to tell me whether I’ve got Covid-19 or not. I dream about small plastic phials with sticks in them, of missing the last post and spoiling the sample, of the end of the trial and the grand un-blinding when I get to know what’s been entangled in my blood.
The weekly string of negative Covid tests bolsters my confidence, I feel almost brazen when I go to the supermarket and when I see families at work (wearing my mask at all times and making my hands raw with anti-bac gel) but still don’t hug my mum when I see her. That would feel a risk too far.
Forward fast to November, and the possibility that it works, this vaccine that might have been sitting in my body, training my immune system these past months. And I’m so terrified that I might be a control person not a real-vaccine person. Who knew it would matter to me so much, despite all the clarity about the nature of the trial. Does that mean my participation is not altruistic but a function of my desire to be first in the vaccine line? Can it be both-and? Whatever the researchers injected into my arm, vaccine or placebo, they injected me with hope. They injected me so that we might hug again. They injected me with confidence to go to work, to meet families, to try – within the rules – to carry on.