I’m sitting in a hospital reception, and my breath is fogging my glasses. Minutes ago, I had been running through humid streets, late for my appointment. As doctors and nurses stroll past on their way to work, I’m aware that I don’t look particularly well.
The last time I was at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south London, it was for the birth of my daughter. It feels very different today. I can smell the bleach used to clean the floors through my face mask, and the adjacent seat is taped off, warning nobody to sit down next to me.
Two hospital staff-members in scrubs and masks approach, one of them holding a sign that reads “vaccine trial” like a taxi driver waiting at an airport arrivals gate.
The sign is for me. I follow them in a slow procession, two metres behind, as the pair share gossip from the wards.
I’m at St George’s for an initial screening as a volunteer in the Oxford University trial to test the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine. In the coming weeks, I will learn what it is like to be a participant in one of the world’s most promising efforts to tackle to the coronavirus pandemic. Of all the vaccine trials ongoing around the world, the Oxford effort is ahead of most of the pack.
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A few weeks later, on 20 July, the researchers would announce extremely promising initial results, based on the first 1,077 people, suggesting that the vaccine is both safe and triggers an immune response. “There is still much work to be done…but these early results hold promise,” Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford said in a statement. The next step involves expanding the trial at a higher dose to thousands more people, volunteering at sites across the UK, as well as Brazil and South Africa. This phase of the clinical trials, to test efficacy on a much bigger scale, is what I have signed up for.
My journey here started one late night in late May, when I stumbled on a tweet from an Oxford University philosopher about a vaccine study that I was aware had been moving fast. He’d volunteered. So, as my wife slept next to me, I also filled out the form on the group’s website, and forgot about it.
A few weeks later, I am in a neurology ward repurposed for the Oxford trial, watching one of the lead scientists, Matthew Snape, on a large projector screen explaining what to expect as a volunteer in their trial – what we can and can’t do, how the science behind the vaccine works, and what side-effects to watch out for.