My friend told me to let him know if it killed me. It was June, and I’d just signed up for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine trial. Over the next two months, I was given two shots, three weeks apart. After the second dose, I was tested for COVID-19 antibodies — the sign of successful vaccination — but never told the result. At a time when treatment options for the coronavirus seemed bleak, my friend was skeptical of the wisdom of receiving an untested inoculation.
I’m happy to report that I’m still alive. And, according to preliminary results recently announced, the vaccine is succeeding well beyond expectations and is 95% effective. We have since learned about Moderna’s vaccine trial success as well.
This is all good news, because it means we may finally turn a corner in controlling the virus, and because it will show, once again, the critical importance of science and vaccines.
Vaccines are a victim of their success
Over the past two decades, a virulent “anti-vaxx” movement has been growing in this country. Some parents believe vaccines cause autism (they don’t); others believe that being held responsible for refusing vaccination infringes on their rights (the Supreme Court has held otherwise). I’ve been the object of ire among anti-vaccine activists since I sponsored legislation in Albany, New York, last year to strengthen vaccine requirements for schoolchildren during last year’s measles outbreak, which infected over a thousand New Yorkers, most of them children.
COVID-19 vaccine trials: I took a coronavirus vaccine. Get politics out of its rollout.
Anti-vaxxers have heckled me in public, hurling anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs, and made threats against me on social media, including sharing a doctored image of my throat being slit. Enrolling in the Pfizer trial was a personal way for me to show my enduring commitment to science in the face of this invective.
The truth is that vaccines have been a victim of their own success. A generation ago, parents still remembered rampaging outbreaks of measles, mumps and even polio. But thanks to science, medicine, and American ingenuity — in short, thanks to vaccines — we were able to triumph over those childhood diseases. In recent years, anti-vaxxers have called attention to the rare side effects of vaccination, comfortably able to ignore their benefits because we’ve forgotten what they prevented.
COVID vaccines, once they’re proven safe and effective, will remind us of how much vaccines matter.
Inside the Pfizer trial
My experience in the Pfizer trial quickly made clear to me that vaccines can indeed have unpleasant side effects. I was pretty sure only a week into the trial that I wasn’t receiving the placebo: after the first dose was administered, I developed a debilitating migraine. The second dose was just as bad, bringing a rapid-onset of fever and aches, followed by several days of gnawing fatigue.
In both cases, the side effects dissipated as quickly as they arrived. And, much more important, the vaccine seemed to work. I’m the only member of my family who didn’t contract the virus this spring. My husband and our two young daughters were never symptomatic, but they’ve all tested positive for the antibodies on several occasions, showing that they had been infected. But me? Every test I took before the vaccine came back negative for antibodies.
A couple of weeks after the second vaccine dose, I decided to test the effectiveness myself by getting an antibody test at a local health clinic. The results popped up in the early hours one morning: not only was I positive for the COVID antibodies, they were at the highest measurable level.
The vaccine worked. So why did my friend doubt it? Like many New Yorkers, he was viewing it as “the Trump vaccine.” And it’s true that the Trump administration pushed hard for drug makers to rush a vaccine to the public before Election Day. In response, states including New York and California are establishing their own vaccine approval panels, and pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, pledged publicly to be guided only by science.
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Some regulatory changes driven by the administration have been beneficial, however.
Traditionally, cost-conscious pharmaceutical companies move slowly, starting with a product in a so-called Phase 1 of testing and ensuring it works before moving on to larger (and expensive) Phase 2 and 3 trials. Now, all those steps are happening simultaneously — at great financial cost but not in a way that sacrifices the scientific integrity of the process. And Operation Warp Speed shifted upfront costs for the early stages of vaccine testing from the private sector to the U.S. government. (Pfizer didn’t accept this vaccine development funding, although it has contracted with the government for distribution.)
Yes, President Donald Trump has contradicted and attacked public health officials at every turn. He has advanced wild treatment ideas and conspiracy theories. And he even threatened to hold the delivery of the eventual vaccine to people living in states where state leaders have challenged him.
But my experience in the Pfizer trial showed me that the system is working. The scientists did their work. The trials were safe. And now we’re on the verge of a vaccine, in record time. It’s not a Trump vaccine or a Biden vaccine — it’s a scientifically-proven vaccine, and we should trust it.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine: Don't let anti-vaxxers discredit science