Photo: Dr. Robert Cherry gets an injection as part of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial. (Photo by Ann Johannson)
Robert Cherry, M.D., describes his participation in the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial as a “low-risk, high-reward value proposition.”
“There are at least 100,000 people participating in the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca trials alone. When you think about the lives that could be saved by a single vaccine, then you are probably talking about at least 10 lives saved globally for every participant enrolled in a study. That’s 1 million lives saved worldwide,” says Dr. Cherry, chief medical and quality officer for UCLA Health. “Although it’s rewarding to drive many of our UCLA Health initiatives that are keeping our staff and communities safe, I want to do more.”
Doing more means contributing to scientific study. But, just as importantly for Dr. Cherry, it means helping to alleviate vaccine hesitancy, particularly among people of color.
“There has been a long and appalling history of medical racism in the prior century. Too many underrepresented minorities have opted out of important clinical research trials because of that stigma. We should never forget that history,” Dr. Cherry says. “But I do want to play a role in changing that narrative, particularly for the black community. We need a diverse and inclusive approach in finding medical breakthroughs if we are going to achieve health care equity.”
Simply illuminating the vaccine trial process can be helpful, he says.
“I believe that when you see someone you know getting one of these vaccines, and that person has a good outcome, then those who are reluctant might be more likely to get vaccinated as well,” he says. “If I can participate in this clinical research trial, in which the risk to my personal health is somewhat unknown, then hopefully others will feel more confident in taking an approved vaccine based on much better information.”
Dr. Cherry began his journey by signing up on the federal vaccine trial website, taking a short survey and waiting for the email that informed him he was eligible to participate in a clinical trial at UCLA. A study coordinator then conducted a preliminary screening and an appointment was set for an in-person evaluation.
The first study visit took about two hours, Dr. Cherry says. That included going over disclosure statements, getting his questions answered by a clinical investigator and reviewing his medical history and vital signs. Baseline bloodwork was drawn and a nasal swab was performed prior to the first injection.
After the first of two trial injections was administered, Dr. Cherry waited onsite for 15 minutes to make sure there were no serious negative reactions. “Happily, the visit was uneventful and the staff were terrific,” he says.
Neither Dr. Cherry nor the clinical investigator know whether he received the vaccine or a placebo – it’s a double-blind study. However, Dr. Cherry did begin experiencing a slightly higher than normal temperature (99.1 degrees) about 22 hours after the first injection. He also had some mild aches and light-headedness. All symptoms went away within about 10 hours, he says. “Some people experience reactions to normal saline injections so I don’t know for sure if the side effects were driven by the vaccine or a placebo.”
Dr. Cherry later returned for a second injection, which likewise went smoothly.
Ultimately, participating in trials leads to vaccines, which will play a critical role in life returning to normal.
“A number of things will need to come together to get us back to a pre-pandemic normal,” Dr. Cherry says. “Certainly, a toolkit containing a variety of approved vaccines that can be mass produced, distributed and willingly taken by a large segment of the global population is a critical step. However, we also need an expanded portfolio of new treatments for those who do become ill in order to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations.”
Until then, he says, people need to be mindful of the techniques learned over the past nine months: wear a mask, physically distance and wash your hands. “I’m looking forward to 2021 getting progressively better for many of us,” says Dr. Cherry.