M.The third appointment with researchers this week, as a participant in Covid-19 vaccine trials, was overshadowed by the news that the Oxford vaccine will likely be available for older people like me early next year – perhaps as early as January or February.
The vaccine I’m trying – the Novavax – will have test results in January and will likely be available in the summer. So what will happen to us guinea pigs when the Oxford vaccine is available I wanted to know. As a reasonably healthy 75-year-old, I’m probably – in the doctor’s words – “at the back of the line”. I have applied to participate in the Novavax study for a year. But if I have the Oxford vaccine, will I no longer be usable?
The charming young doctor smiled broadly and said “that’s a really good question” to the whole world as if not everyone he saw had asked the same question. The answer is that as soon as I am offered a vaccine, they will “unblind” me – that is, tell me if I am one of the 50% of guinea pigs who have been given the trial vaccine or if I have the placebo instead got. .
If I got the placebo, I would have to take the Oxford vaccine, and I will not use it again. That’s not how he put it – he talked about how useful I had already been – but it’s what he meant.
Once I get the trial vaccine, and if it turns out to work in January, I can decline my place in the Oxford vaccine queue – or take it, if I want. If I decline, can I still be used in the study? The answer, it turns out, is perhaps very clear. The problem is, once I know I have the vaccine in my body, it will affect my behavior, and that will skew the results.
I realized he was right. I had just made two stops on the tube to get to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, obsessively looking for a lonely corner in the end car. Would I have taken that trouble if I knew I had been vaccinated?
I may still have some minor use. They have yet to decide whether data from “unblinded” guinea pigs can help in some way. But the inevitable waste of participants that occurs when a vaccine is available doesn’t help the researchers.
The doctor asked the usual questions about my health and passed me on to an equally charming nurse. You know that a nurse is about to have your blood drawn if he asks with extensive casualness if you have any interesting plans for the rest of the day. Well, I said, I have my U3A French Conversation Group, now meeting on Zoom. “Vraiment? Vous parlez couramment?” He said, and I never noticed the needle going in. It turns out he had French A-level.
I’ll be back at the end of January, but for me, selfishly, the urgency will go away once the Oxford vaccine is available. At 75, there is a voice that will not shut down asking how long you will have this blessed good health, and he is terribly afraid that your health will give way once you are free to do all the fun things you plan. The vaccine will have come too late.
I would have a great year in 2020. Aside from quite a bit of traveling, my play about Clement Attlee would be at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate for the third time in April. We’ve delayed it to November, and now we’ve delayed it to the first week of February. Then please let us run it.
I want my life back while I can enjoy it. So is it worth investigating further if a vaccine has already been found? They say yes. There will be different vaccines, good for different purposes. And they can get cheaper. I would like to think that means they will provide it to poorer countries at reduced rates, but that’s not how pharmaceutical companies work. If someone is going to subsidize poor countries, it must be rich countries.
So they are still recruiting. The Novavax study has nearly reached the target of 15,000 guinea pigs in the UK, and the target of a quarter of them over 65. More people are needed for other studies. Some researchers are concerned about the diversity among the volunteers. “We have a responsibility to ensure that our participants are a reflection of the community we serve,” said Dr. Fiona Burns, principal investigator at the Royal Free.
I’ll be back in two months as promised, although I don’t know how long after that. But for now I said goodbye. “À bientôt,” said the nurse. “À la prochaine,” I said.
• Francis Beckett is a journalist, playwright and author of several books, including biographies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.