Atlantans volunteer in trial of potential COVID-19 vaccine

Sean Doyle, a 31-year-old Emory medical student, poses for a portrait outside of his apartment complex on Friday in Atlanta. Doyle will participate in an Emory University trial aimed at determining whether a substance called mRNA can combat COVID-19. (Christina Matacotta, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Sean Doyle, a 31-year-old Emory medical student, poses for a portrait outside of his apartment complex on Friday in Atlanta. Doyle will participate in an Emory University trial aimed at determining whether a substance called mRNA can combat COVID-19. (Christina Matacotta, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Sean Doyle and Claire McDougall are part of a small group willing to put themselves on the line for what they hope will be historic research. They volunteered to be given an experimental vaccine for COVID-19.

Emory University, partnering with Kaiser Permanente Washington, is testing the investigational vaccine with 17 Atlanta-based participants. An additional 28 coronavirus vaccine volunteers are in the Seattle area, Emory officials said.

Less than two weeks ago, each participant received a dose of an experimental vaccine developed by the Massachusetts-based company Moderna with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

In about two weeks, they will receive the second dose of the vaccine, which contains a small portion of the genetic material that causes COVID-19 but cannot cause the infection.

Doyle, 31, and McDougall, 27, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they stepped forward to aid in the battle against novel coronavirus, which already has claimed the lives of more than 200 Georgians.

“As a citizen, you want to fight this as much as possible, and this seemed to be the best measure,” Doyle said.

But both admitted there were moments the risks of what they were about to do created some anxiety.

“I definitely had some nerves,” McDougall said in a telephone interview.

The vaccine, which is called mRNA-1273, is based on messenger RNA, which has been described as telling the body to produce a vigorous immune response.

The vaccination process is similar to taking a flu shot, although the vaccine is different from older vaccines that contain whole virus.

Atlanta resident Claire McDougall volunteered to participate in an Emory University COVID-19 vaccine study. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.
Atlanta resident Claire McDougall volunteered to participate in an Emory University COVID-19 vaccine study. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.

The 45 trial participants received different dosages — low, intermediate and high. Nurses will take blood samples from each participant about four weeks after the second injection, and researchers will see how effective the immune system of each participant is in generating antibodies against the virus.

The trial, which is in the first phase, is also to see if the vaccine is safe, and participants will be followed for a year after getting the second injection. The company is also preparing for a potential phase 2 study.

Emory asked Doyle, a medical student at the school, to volunteer after he participated in an Ebola vaccine study in 2017. McDougall volunteered after Emory contacted her fiancée, who is in the university’s medical science training program, to see if he was interested in participating. Her fiancée, Joe Behnke , was interested, but she was selected first. He’s still hoping to be part of the continuing study.

» RELATED: Emory joins NIH-sponsored study for COVID-19 vaccine

» MORE: In the race to treat COVID-19, Georgia companies stake a claim

Doyle and McDougall said family and friends have supported their decision.

Doyle, a North Carolina native who lives in Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood, said friends and family members, “trusted his judgment” when he told them about participating in the trial study.

McDougall, who works in sales for a tax software company and lives in Druid Hills, did some research about the trial study. She felt comfortable about participating when her mother approved and said she was proud of what she is doing.

“It made me pretty happy,” McDougall said.

» RELATED: Emory launches a new online tool for COVID-19 screening

Both said they had no serious side effects and said the first injection went smoothly.

A worldwide race is underway for a COVID-19 vaccine and for drugs to treat the infection. There are 10 active trials and another 15 in the planning stages, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In addition to Moderna, several other U.S.-based companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, are conducting their own research and some are hopeful to have a vaccine by this fall. Among companies working on treatments is Alpharetta-based Ennaid Therapeutics, LLC. Additionally, in hopes of saving lives, several hospitals and researchers are transfusing the plasma of patients who’ve recovered from the disease into critically-ill patients.

Most trial studies of vaccines fail because they don’t produce a good immune response or because of manufacturing issues, researchers said in a conference call with reporters Friday.

"As a citizen, you want to fight this as much as possible, and this seemed to be the best measure." —Sean Doyle, volunteering to test an experimental vaccine for COVID-19

One world-renowned vaccine development and policy researcher estimated a 10% chance of a vaccine making it through each stage of testing. She used a hockey analogy to explain the need for a variety of vaccine strategies.

“You can’t count on a single vaccine. We want a lot of shots on goal right now, hoping that we’ll score with one of these,” said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Still, Emory researcher Dr. Evan Anderson said he has “cautious optimism” that this trial will work. Anderson said part of the challenge for the Emory team and others is the disease is so widespread. If someone on the team or a study participant gets the disease, it may slow or halt their research.

“It is harder to conduct a vaccine study when that pathogen is still existing in the community,” Anderson said.

Most vaccine studies take years, but the COVID-19 research is being fast-tracked by the FDA, and helped by Chinese colleagues who’ve shared the genetic sequence of the virus.

Even with fast-tracking, though, researchers say it could take at least a year before a successful vaccine is tested and ready to be distributed.

Doyle, who is considering a career in oncology, hopes others will participate in trial research. Emory’s Anderson said they had many additional volunteers.

“I hope this encourages folks to get involved in vaccine trials because it’s relatively safe and the potential benefits are great,” Doyle said.