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Bel Air man who participated in trials of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine says ‘no side effects,’ urges others to get their shot

Krishna Pillalamarri participated in trials for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine over the summer. December 31, 2020
Krishna Pillalamarri participated in trials for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine over the summer. December 31, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Bel Air resident Krishna Pillalamarri is one of tens of thousands of people around the globe who volunteered for trials this year as pharmaceutical firms Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech developed their vaccine to protect people from COVID-19.

Now, he’s encouraging other people to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them.

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Pillalamarri, 77, got the first of the two shots needed for the vaccine June 15 and the second three weeks later. He participated through the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, which received funding from Pfizer to conduct the trials locally. The first shots were given to trial participants in May.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, as well as a second vaccine developed by Moderna, have since received federal approval for emergency use in the U.S. Shots have initially been given to those working on the front lines of the pandemic, as well as residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

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Pillalamarri traveled to the medical school once a week to give blood samples after getting the shots, and he has been checking in by phone weekly since August — he will continue to give updates through mid-2022, he said.

“For a person of my age, I’m in quite good health,” he said Wednesday when asked what motivated him to participate in the trial.

“I would like people to understand that there is no problem with the vaccine. They shouldn’t be afraid to take the vaccine — they should welcome the chance to get the vaccine.”

He noted that he took part in a trial for the Crestor blood pressure medication about 10 years ago, and that he sees occasional advertisements for clinical trials of other medicines.

“I thought I’d offer myself for some kind of testing, clinical trial” for the COVID vaccine, Pillalamarri said. “I felt good about volunteering, and also I know a little bit about these research protocols.”

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The Bel Air resident worked at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground for 25 years, where staff test everything from boots to tanks and huge training systems for soldiers, he said.

Before retiring from APG about seven years ago, Pillalamarri worked in the areas of engineering and computational support. He spent a few years as a member of an ARL panel that reviewed proposals for research projects that involved human subjects.

Proposals were evaluated for “general scientific rigor, with particular emphasis on participant safety, and providing ample opportunity for informed consent.” Officials developed “abundant opportunity” for researchers to explain any risks to participants, assuring them that their participation was voluntary and they could withdraw at any time, according to Pillalamarri.

“As such, I had no hesitation in participating in this [vaccine] study,” he said.

Pillalamarri said he has not experienced any adverse effects from the vaccine so far, and he encourages others to get vaccinated to protect themselves from COVID-19.

“I didn’t have any side effects at all,” he said. “They were warning us to report any swelling or pain — I had absolutely no indications [of side effects].”

Some people have reported pain, redness and swelling around the injection site on their arms, or chills, fatigue and a headache, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web page on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Side effects usually start within a day or two of receiving the vaccine and may mirror flu-like symptoms, according to the CDC. Symptoms could affect someone’s ability to do daily activities, but typically subside in a few days.

Businesses and government agencies throughout the world have been collaborating in a historically swift effort this year to create a vaccine against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide, including nearly 342,500 in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

It normally takes years to develop a vaccine, but the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was granted emergency use authorization in Dec. 11 for administration in the United States by the Food & Drug Administration. A second vaccine developed by Moderna, on Dec. 18. The approvals came nine months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March.

The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are being rolled out, with the initial shots going to medical professionals and first responders, as well as residents and staff of long-term care centers, as part of Phase 1A of Maryland’s vaccine plan.

Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan will include residents considered to be at high-risk of complications from COVID-19, such as those with serious heart conditions or type 2 diabetes. Older adults age 65 and up and critical workers like teachers and grocery store employees will be part of Phase 2.

The general population will be vaccinated during Phase 3.

Maryland residents can learn more about how the vaccine will be distributed locally via the state’s covidLINK website.

Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department, urged local residents to visit the health department website and its social media pages for more information on distribution of the vaccine, including upcoming vaccine clinics. Health officials plan to work with Upper Chesapeake Health when providing vaccines to the community.

“When we do receive the vaccine, we are prepared, ready, and so excited to help vaccinate the community,” Mraz said. “This is a great stride in public health, and we couldn’t be more proud to be a part of history in the making.”

More than 45,000 people in six countries participated in the trials, and 30% of U.S. trial participants had “diverse backgrounds,” including 13% Hispanic, 10% Black and 6% Asian, according to a Pfizer web page on the vaccine.

Participants ranged in age from 12 years old to 56 and older — 45% of those in the U.S. were between 56 and 85 years old, according to the web page and Eamonn Nolan, a spokesperson for Pfizer.

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“We are committed to diversity in our clinical trial and ensuring that individuals from communities that have been most affected by COVID-19 have the opportunity to participate,” Nolan said.

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Pillalamarri was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. in 1970. He is married with one son and two daughters, plus one granddaughter. He said his family was “a little bit” concerned in the beginning about him participating in the trial.

His daughter, Aravinda Pillalamarri, said she read the documents pertaining to informed consent provided to trial participants, which made her feel “somewhat reassured, but of course there is still an element of risk.”

“It takes courage to participate in a vaccine trial, and I am proud of my dad for stepping forward,” Aravinda said.

Krishna Pillalamarri noted the misconception of many in the public that the COVID-19 vaccine involved injecting people with the virus.

That is not the case with this vaccine, however, which is based around messenger RNA. That means the immune system is instructed, through the vaccine, in making “spike proteins” similar to those on the surface of the novel coronavirus, according to a CDC web page on mRNA vaccines.

The immune system, by developing those spike proteins, is now familiar with COVID-19 and knows how to build antibodies should a vaccinated person be exposed to the disease, according to the CDC.

Pillalamarri said it was explained to him that the vaccine was “mimicking the virus, to make the body think it was being attacked by the virus.”

“I would like people to understand that there is no problem with the vaccine,” he said. “They shouldn’t be afraid to take the vaccine — they should welcome the chance to get the vaccine.”

Aravinda, who also lives in Bel Air, noted that many people think about health in terms of how it affects them personally. During the pandemic, however, people must consider how their actions affect not only their health but the health of people around them.

“Wearing my mask protects others, social distancing protects others — we may not even know whom we have protected,” she said, describing taking the vaccine as “a public health measure, where we unite as a community to protect the community.”

“Everyone who takes part in these trials deserves our gratitude and recognition for facing this risk for the sake of public health,” Aravinda Pillalmarri said. “Across the country and the world, overworked doctors and nurses are risking their lives under extreme conditions, which won’t improve unless we do our part — masks, social distancing, and vaccination — to slow and eventually end the pandemic.”

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