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‘I was excited and anxious about being a guinea pig for the covid vaccine’

A volunteer for the Phase II trials of Covaxin, India's indigenous covid-19 vaccine, shares his experience of being part of the process

Sales of covid-19 vaccines in India could potentially be worth $6 billion over three years, according to reports
Sales of covid-19 vaccines in India could potentially be worth $6 billion over three years, according to reports (AP)

Thousands of people across the world have come forward to take part in the trials of covid-19 vaccines. While some are doing it to support their country, most are signing up to help speed up the search for a cure for the virus that has affected millions globally.

Chennai-based Kumara Prashadh, Volunteer No. 111075, told Mint about his experience of participating in the recent Phase II trials of Covaxin, India’s indigenous covid-19 vaccine by Bharat Biotech, developed in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Like the rest of the world, I’m waiting for the vaccine. Every 2-3 hours, I browse the Internet to look for updates on the status of covid-19 vaccines. I was eagerly waiting for Bharat Biotech (BB) to start its trials. One day in August, while scrolling through Twitter, I came across a post from a doctor in Chennai, requesting people to come forward and participate in Covaxin's Phase I trials. A few days earlier, I had seen this report about a shortfall of volunteers in the UK for vaccine trials. I didn’t want that to happen in my country, so I decided to participate. I had read enough about trials and the kind of research and work that goes into creating a vaccine. So I was confident about Covaxin.

I immediately called the number mentioned in the tweet. A woman answered. I told her, I am 31, healthy, and asked if I could participate in the trial. She was very sweet. She said, ‘We are done for Phase I. We will call you for Phase II trials.’ So, I waited.

I told my family about my decision. Initially, they weren’t happy about it, but I guess that was understandable. Nobody in our family had ever participated in a clinical trial. After many discussions, they all finally agreed that participation was important. Fortunately, nobody in my family was affected by covid-19 but the numbers of cases have been spiking in Chennai so there’s always a fear that it might reach our doorstep as well. In the first week of September, I got a call from the same lady, asking me if I was still interested in participating in the second phase at the SRM Institute of Science and Technology. “Yes!" I was so happy and excited. Finally, I was able to serve my country and be part of history.

I was told to reach SRM around 11 am on 8 September. It was a 30 km drive from my home, so I left early in the morning. I was excited and anxious to be a human guinea pig for the covid vaccine. I was also worried. What if I have asymptomatic covid—will they let me participate? What if I contract the virus while entering the hospital corridor? Will I survive? What if the tiny amount of virus in the vaccine kills me?

I wasn’t scared. I was nervous. I wanted to be part of this. As soon as I entered the huge hospital building, I met the woman who’d spoken to me on the phone. She gave me a paper with No. 111075 scribbled on it. I was thrilled to be volunteer No. 11075. It was finally happening.

She asked me to fill a form with my personal details, like Aadhar number and address. Then I was taken to a big empty room where my vitals like blood pressure were taken. I wasn’t worried at that point since I lead a very healthy lifestyle. Then I was taken to a counsellor, who explained the whole process of the trial and that I could walk out of the trial at any point if I wasn’t feeling comfortable. I was very confident; the Phase I trials had no issues. The worst side effect one could get was a headache and fever. Then my blood tests were done to check for presence of antibodies, followed by a covid test. At that point, I got worried. What if I have antibodies?

I was then given 1,000, so were the other eight-nine people who had come to volunteer. We were told that we’d be given the same amount as travel allowance for each visit. Then we were asked to return home and told that we would be called again if we fit the criteria.

The next evening I got a call from the same lady to return to the hospital for the vaccine dose. I was beyond happy. I reached SRM around noon on 10 September. This time I went straight to the duty doctor who I now recognized. She checked my vitals like last time. Everything was normal. Then I was taken to a huge room with 10-15 beds, placed 4-5 ft apart. I could see some of the volunteers I had met last time occupying those beds. All five were men.

As I sat on my bed, an elderly nurse in a lab coat, wearing two masks, approached me with a small injection. I thought to myself, “This is it? This is what I spent so many days thinking about?" I expected an army of doctors coming towards me in PPEs, a huge syringe in hand. This is not at all what I thought all these days. Before the nurse gave me the injection, I asked if it would leave a mark. “It will not even pain," she said. It didn’t. No pain. No mark.

After the jab and an hour of resting, I was directed to the pantry, where the volunteers were served a meal that included dal, paneer mutter, roti and rice. It was good food. Then we were given a log book to jot down any headaches or fever or anything unusual we felt till the next visit. After getting the Rs1,000 allowance, I left for home. At that point my only worry was what if I have some side effect while driving. Nothing happened.

Once home, I showed my wife where the needle was inserted. There was no mark; it was as if nothing had happened. Till now, I haven’t faced any problem. My next shot is due on 8 October. Sometimes, I wonder if I was given a placebo, since there was no side effect. My only fear is, what if I get covid by October?

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