St George's University Hospital Searches For Vaccine

What it's like to be one of the 100s of volunteers taking part in the vaccine trial?

Meet Jack - a volunteer who works at St George's Hospital - image: St Georges Hospital

At St George's Hospital, hundreds of volunteers are taking part in a vaccine trial are taking part in a vaccine trial that could protect them from coronavirus.

Producing a vaccine is key to returning to our normal lives, and there is an enormous amount of pressure to discover one as soon as possible.

We spoke to one volunteer to find out more about their experience of the trial so far and what it feels like to be part of cutting-edge research during the most significant health crisis for generations.

Jack works at St George’s, where the university’s Vaccine Institute is helping to lead the trial in the capital, with support from the nearby hospital.

Designed and organised by the University of Oxford, the vaccine contains a type of virus called an adenovirus, which has been deactivated and combined with a protein from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Half the participants in the study will receive the new coronavirus vaccine, while the other half will receive a control vaccine that is designed to prevent meningitis.

This is to check if the vaccine works.

Jack says he was inspired to take part in the trial after seeing his colleagues fighting the virus on the front line.

“I’m a healthy young male, probably lowest in the risk group, and I felt particularly proud that St George’s was one of the sites working with Oxford on this vaccine trial and potentially being able to play a really small part in tackling something that is a global pandemic,” he said.

But he was a little nervous.

“I will admit on the day having a slight moment of trepidation as I walked there thinking ‘oh god’, The enormity of the situation weighed down on me, but working with scientists day in and day out, I’m aware of the rigorous processes that they need to go through to take a vaccine to a clinical trial. So I felt really reassured. Although I didn’t know the people actually running the vaccine trial, they are effectively colleagues. That gave me a greater sense of confidence,” he said.

First Jack had to fill in a short online eligibility questionnaire that asked him about any pre-existing medical conditions, if he took any medication, his age, height and where he lived.

Trial scientists at St George’s are keen to recruit people from the local area so they can drive, walk or cycle without having to use public transport.

Two days later, Jack received a telephone call from one of the research nurses going through the questions in a bit more detail, before inviting him for a screening on site.

This health check took two hours.

“I went through lots of paperwork,” said Jack.

“There was a half hour video to watch where someone from the trial explained exactly how the vaccine had been developed, that the coronavirus vaccine is called ChAdOx1, that it has some genetic components of coronavirus but is not coronavirus, and then the control vaccine being a meningitis vaccine,” he said.

“I was then taken into a consultation room, I had a wonderful paediatrician with me, he really took the time to make sure I’d read the paperwork and answered any questions I had about the study.

“I was really interested to see if I would know which vaccine I had. Of course that’s not possible to make sure that the study is blind, but he said we could find out at the end of the study. But he did make sure I felt really informed before I made the decision to progress.

“Then he did the typical vital health check, he took my blood pressure, I think he took some blood, he took my heartrate, temperature and did I think a chest respiratory examination. Afterwards I was told I would hear if I had been selected for the trial.

“In a matter of days I had another call saying ‘congratulations you have been selected’ and would be one of the first people to participate.”

The whole process took just over a week, and Jack received the vaccine on May 5.

Again, despite its importance, Jack said it felt like “just going to the doctors.”

“It was very calm. They took time to assess my eligibility to double check if I wanted to progress, that if I wanted to pull out, I could at any point. Just to take the time to explain what was going to happen over the next hour I would be there.

“The only difference I would say is that to my understanding the vaccine is kind of made to order, like a drive-thru.

“The doctors would do all the relevant vital tests again to make sure I’m still good to go, they took the blood and then they both had to go to request the vaccine be made up at the lab and bring it back round. That was the only difference, I had to wait for the vaccine to be made, which felt a bit surreal.

“It came back, I got the vaccine, nothing more different than just having a needle in your arm, and then waited in the waiting area for an hour just to make sure I didn’t have any side effects and everything was fine for me to go.

“That was the end of it really. I think the enormity of the situation comes from the perspective that this is a vaccine for a global pandemic, actually when you’re in there it doesn’t feel any different to just going for the flu jab.”

Jack was then given a pack to take away with him, containing more information, a thermometer and ruler, as well as instructions on how to complete an e-diary.

“For at least the first seven days there was a comprehensive survey that I would complete everyday that would list specific side effects and ask me if I had experienced them,” said Jack.

“I had to take my temperature everyday and put that in, if it had gone over 37.5 degrees I would have to flag that. Then just list any other symptoms I had, like a headache or a toothache or something else that could be completely unrelated, making sure that anything you feel is slightly out of the norm is listed. These were quite detailed surveys for the first seven days, but they took me no longer than five to ten minutes to complete at the end of each day.

“After that they were very simple questions of ‘have you had a consistent fever’ and ‘have you experienced any symptoms?’ On top of that I was also asked to complete a weekly exposure questionnaire, so that’s just summarising my activities during the week, how many times I’d been food shopping, how many times I had exercised inside or outside, had I met anyone outside my household and stayed within a certain distance? Again that was for four weeks.”

Jack has not long finished his e-diary, and last week went for another follow-up meeting where he was asked about any symptoms, went through the e-diary and had more blood taken.

“It was really simple,” he said.

Jack now doesn’t have to do anything for another five months, when he will go back to the hospital for another check-up.

After that he will have the option to attend a follow-up meeting a year after having the vaccine.

“We have been told that when the trial finishes we can find out which vaccine we were given, but they did make the point of ‘don’t take any undue risk by assuming you maybe have had the vaccine’,” said Jack.

“The trial is to test the efficacy of the vaccine, so you have to assume you have the same level of protection you would have before you came in for this vaccine trial.”

For that reason, participants must follow the same guidelines as everybody else, and only adapt when government advice changes.

Overall Jack says he has had “a really positive experience.”

“If people are thinking about it I would really reassure people that it’s such an easy process and at each point I was given the opportunity to reconsider my decision based on the information.

“It made me feel particularly proud to do it at St George’s, but also I felt great I could play a really small part in this process and hopefully my experience will help inform the results of the study.”

The next phase of the trial allows participants from older age groups, including those aged 56-69 and 70 and over to take part.

Further details on how to volunteer for the trial can be found at:

Prospective participants should select ‘London Sites’ and register to participate at St George's University Hospital.

Sian Bayley - Local Democracy Reporter

June 16, 2020