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Editor’s note: This story is part of our MC faculty and staff series. Diego Hernandez is an associate professor of English Language for Academic Purposes (ELAP, formerly known as AELP) at Montgomery College. He was a participant in Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial. 

By Diego Hernandez

Prof. Diego Hernandez participated in Moderna’s phase 3 vaccine trials

When I first heard National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins on National Public Radio announcing large-scale clinical trials of vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 in summer 2020, I immediately went to the website to register. I knew a diverse pool of participants, including Latinos like me, would strengthen the results of the trial. I was also motivated by self-interest: the possibility of receiving the vaccine as soon as possible was appealing.

I am from Gaithersburg. My parents, who are scientists, worked at the National Institutes of Health for most of their careers. They also volunteered at all my science fairs throughout the years. Although I didn’t pursue science as a career, I felt comfortable volunteering for this vaccine trial because I understand and trust the institutions supporting this vaccine development.

Not long after registering, I got a phone call for an initial screening. After a few questions to confirm my eligibility, I received a doctor’s appointment at an office on Seven Locks Road in Rockville. At the appointment, I perused a lengthy document detailing the parameters of the trial, including the financial compensation participants would receive. The document detailed the new technology behind the mRNA vaccine, which I read over and over to try to understand. I remembered learning about mRNA in high school biology, but I didn’t remember what it was. I also discovered I could leave the trial at any time for any reason.

Developing, testing the safety and efficacy of, and approving a vaccine in less than a year is nothing less than one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements, and I am eager to see the whole MC community eventually benefit from the protection these vaccines offer.

My first doctor’s appointment in late August 2020 lasted three hours. Lab technicians drew eight vials of blood, gave me a nasal swab deeper than I ever thought possible, and injected me with an initial dose—either a placebo or the real vaccine. I returned four weeks later for a second dose, after which I experienced a low-grade fever and body aches for about 24 hours. Between appointments—and after the second injection—I completed periodic diary entries on a smartphone app. I also have a monthly phone call with the clinical trial staff to monitor my health.

Hernandez has monthly call with clinical trial staff so they can monitor his health

The Moderna trial lasts 25 months, during which time they will continue to monitor antibody levels to see how long the immunity conferred by the vaccine lasts. In mid-December 2020, about three months after I received my second dose, the Federal Drug Administration granted the Moderna vaccine, or mRNA-1273, emergency use authorization based on results showing 94 percent efficacy against severe disease. Two weeks later, right before New Year’s Eve, I went back to the trial site for my unblinding visit. I was thrilled to learn I had received the real vaccine. Moving forward, my participation consists simply of visits every three months to monitor my antibody levels.

I am happy to share my experience as a trial participant with the Montgomery College community. Unfortunately, aside from supply-chain bottlenecks that have hampered the vaccine rollout so far, more insidious obstacles threaten progress toward the ultimate goal of herd immunity: misinformation spread through social media and the shameful legacy of abuse endured by communities of color at the hands of medical researchers.

Developing, testing the safety and efficacy of, and approving a vaccine in less than a year is nothing less than one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements, and I am eager to see the whole MC community eventually benefit from the protection these vaccines offer.

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