Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about Zach Wurtz's status in the trial of a vaccine for COVID-19. He is currently in the evaluation process and could be one of 45 people selected to be test subjects for the first phase of testing the vaccine.
YORK, Pa. – When Bridget and Adam Wurtz came home from teaching at their church on, March 11 in Hanover, Pennsylvania, Adam didn’t feel well.
He was tired and just felt run-down. He had a cough. The next morning, he woke with a fever; his temperature was 102. He stayed in bed.
Friday morning, Bridget woke up having difficulty breathing. She checked her temperature, and it was 102.
They suspected they had been infected with COVID-19. Their doctor suspected that as well, and although they were at risk of becoming critically ill because of their ages – Bridget is 62 and Adam is 63 – they did not meet the criteria to be tested for the virus. Their doctor explained that they had to have a fever of at least 103 or be ill enough to be admitted to a hospital to be tested.
They stayed home and stayed away from people.
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Little did they know that their 36-year-old son, Zach, living 3,000 miles away in Seattle, was participating in a project that has the potential to change the course of a global pandemic.
'I just wanted to help'
Washington was the canary in the coal mine of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the first state in which COVID-19 was identified as having landed within the nation’s borders, on Jan. 21. As the rest of the country was still relatively complacent about the new disease, thinking it was something that was confined to China, Washington State was bracing for the worst.
When it appeared the pandemic was inevitable, Moderna Inc., a biotech company headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts., was working on developing a vaccine. The company specializes in using what’s called “messenger RNA” to develop “a new generation of transformative medicines” to cure viral diseases. Using the genetic sequence of the virus shared by Chinese researchers in January, the company developed what could be a vaccine, and in February it submitted the vaccine to the National Institutes of Health for testing.
In early March, the company began working with the Kaiser-Permanente health care consortium to begin tests of the vaccine, a lengthy and tedious process.
Kaiser-Permanente began advertising for test subjects in early March. A friend of Zach’s mentioned it to him, and he looked into it. His business was “decimated” by the pandemic, he said. He runs a political consultancy, a company that tracks political candidates and videotapes everything they say in hopes of capturing them saying something dumb.
With the pandemic prompting candidates to cancel public events, business dried up. “There was not much work,” said Zach, whose company works for progressive candidates. “My entire business depends on events, and if they’re canceled, we have nothing.”
He looked into the ad and thought he could make a little money and, at the same time, help out. During this pandemic, it’s easy to slide into hopelessness. He saw this as something he could do. “I just wanted to help,” he said.
He called, and after answering some questions, went for a physical and spoke to a number of doctors. “It was a pretty lengthy process,” he said. At the end of the process, he could be one of the 45 people selected to be test subjects for the first phase of testing the vaccine, a sort of human guinea pig.
For his trouble, he will be paid $1,100.
From mice to human tests
He and the others in the initial trial of the experimental vaccine won’t be injected with “live” COVID-19 virus. Instead, Moderna, according to its website, has been specializing in developing what’s called “messenger RNA” to replicate the effects of the “live virus.” The “messenger RNA,” according to the company’s website, contains the genetic code that instructs cells how to manufacture the proteins that make up the virus, which is then supposed to prompt the body’s immune system to fight the toxic virus.
It is the first vaccine – code-named mRNA-1273 – developed to battle the Covid-19 virus. No vaccine developed with this technology has reached the market yet, according to The New York Times. The trials would be critical.
As one of the initial test subjects, Zach will receive a series of injections while physicians monitor how his body reacts, checking for side effects and drawing blood samples to see whether the vaccine has any effect on his immune system. He won’t contract the disease, and he doesn’t have to be quarantined, although he said he is taking measures to reduce contact with others, the same as everybody else. Earlier tests had been conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health on mice.
This is the very initial stage of testing, a process that is expected to last 14 months. While the vaccine has been developed with remarkable speed, according to reports, it won’t be ready for widespread use for 14 to 18 months.
Zach asked about the risk of being a test subject and was told that it was low.
“I don’t really understand the science behind it,” Zach said. “I do know that we have a lot of smart people attacking this from a lot of different angles.”
'He didn't think it was such a big deal'
Adam’s fever broke Monday morning. Bridget’s broke the next day. A couple of days later, they still felt the effects. “We’re on the other side of it now,” Bridget said. “We just feel wiped out, like we had the flu.”
They were staying inside and away from others.
They hadn’t known Zach was participating in initial tests of a vaccine until a friend pointed out a Facebook post in which he announced it.
“Apparently, it was in the news in the Seattle area,” his mother wrote in an email. “He didn’t think it was such a big deal so he failed to mention it on our phone call on Sunday.”
Zach thinks he is just playing a small role in the creation of a vaccine.
“There are a lot of people a lot smarter than me involved in this,” he said. “I’m just showing up for appointments and keeping a diary. The scientists are doing the work. They’re the ones doing the real work.
“I don’t think this thing has a chance against that kind of brainpower.”
Follow Mike Argento on Twitter: @fnmikeargento
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine trial subject's parents denied virus test