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The Coronavirus Vaccine: First-Hand Experiences From Its Trials

December 07, 2020
Nurse practitioner student Kyle Fletcher (left) and School of Nursing Term Lecturer Karen Flaherty participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials at Moderna and Pfizer, respectively.
Nurse practitioner student Kyle Fletcher (left) and School of Nursing Term Lecturer Karen Flaherty participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials at Moderna and Pfizer, respectively.

Some people may feel nervous about being among the first to receive one of the coronavirus vaccines expected to be approved in the coming days. Kyle Fletcher wants to dispell those fears.

The first-year Master of Science in Nursing student has firsthand experience with one of the vaccines. He was working with first-responders fighting the pandemic in Haiti last spring while taking prerequisite courses for the MGH Institute, when he got an email early one morning—“I hadn’t even had my coffee yet,” he recalled—from the Cambridge-based biotechnology company Moderna about participating in its Phase-3, placebo-controlled, double-blind messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine trial being conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

“I’d been reading about it since it first began, so I felt confident in the science behind it,” said the New York native. “It was the right thing to do to sign up.”

Fletcher grew up listening to talk of vaccines while sitting around the dinner table; his mother, who has a PhD in pathology, used to work at Pfizer, a second U.S. company on the cusp of having its coronavirus vaccine approved in the United States and which was granted a temporary authorization December 2 for emergency use in the United Kingdom. When he told her he was invited to join the Moderna trial, her first response was to ask about the study’s design and platform. “She had done her post-doctoral work developing strategies to evaluate vaccine efficacy in animal models, so I wasn’t surprised that’s what she wanted to know about,” said the 25-year-old Fletcher, who holds a Master of Public Health from the University at Buffalo.

While he doesn’t know for sure if he received the vaccine or a placebo, he did initially spike a temperature with chills and body aches—symptoms that vanished after 24 hours. “That seems to me that I got the vaccine, because my body probably wouldn’t react to a placebo that way,” he said.

During one of Fletcher’s first Health Assessment Lab classes this fall, he mentioned his participation to his teacher, Karen Flaherty, MS, MEd, APRN-BC, a term lecturer and a member of the academic support team in the School of Nursing. A nurse practitioner who spent more than 40 years at the Brigham, most recently as director of its Comprehensive Breast Center unit, she was considering joining a vaccine trial. Fletcher’s words proved to be the impetus she needed. “I’m in the age group that is more susceptible to getting the virus, so I figured why not,” said 67-year-old Flaherty, who has no underlying health conditions. “I really trust the science behind these vaccines.”

She learned that Boston Medical Center was conducting a trial of the Pfizer vaccine, and she was accepted after completing a pre-screening. “They wanted to know how many times a week I was in public, like going to the supermarket or being on campus, because they wanted people who were potentially exposed,” Flaherty said.

She’s had two shots since starting the trial. The first one included a nasal swab—“Not the one that goes up into your brain,” she said with a laugh—and blood work. No symptoms. But after her second shot a few weeks later, her arm felt like she had received a tetanus shot. She woke up in the middle of the night with a headache, feeling like she had a bad case of the flu. After falling back to sleep, she awoke with the symptoms gone. “I guess I got the real deal with that shot,” she said.

Flaherty has downloaded an app in which she records how she’s feeling every day. And she was given a self-test to use if she starts to have any virus symptoms, which she said have not occurred. “It’s a well-organized study,” she said. “The people whom I’ve met working in it have been great.”

Fletcher said his classmates have been very supportive of his trial participation. He believes a vaccine can help diffuse the pandemic, which is expected to continue raging out of control for the next few months. With health care workers scheduled to be among the first wave of vaccine recipients when they are expected to become available later in December, he understands some people may have reservations even though both trials have reported a success rate of more than 94%. 

“I think that some skepticism is important to recognize. But in my experience, it’s absolutely safe,” Fletcher said. “People should feel confident about it because, especially for health care workers, the benefit of protecting yourself, your colleagues, and loved ones from COVID-19 outweighs the risk of a few temporary side-effects.”

-    John Shaw