There’s a two-thirds chance I got an experimental COVID vaccine and a one-third chance I got a shot of salt water. Why would a preteen join a COVID vaccine trial now?
I appreciate the chance to do anything to help return to normal. For 14 months, I have been waiting for the pandemic to end. Just waiting. There have been things I could not do — don’t go out, don’t touch things, don’t breathe on people — but this vaccine trial is my first chance to actively help.
My family looked for COVID vaccine trials months ago, when vaccines for kids were a long way off. We hoped a trial could get me vaccinated early. I finally got invited to enroll when a different vaccine was ready for adolescents, so enrolling in this trial might actually postpone my vaccination. I could get fully vaccinated right now without a trial; I’m 12 years old. The United States has such good vaccine supply we are offering lotteries, doughnuts and beers to get people to take it.
So why try to help get another vaccine approved? In many countries, doctors, nurses and grandparents still cannot get vaccinated for COVID. And maybe we will need more vaccines here, too — that work against new variants, cost less, don’t cause side effects, or don’t need freezing — and developing more vaccines requires volunteers. I am healthy, so participating in a trial is not a big risk to me. Some kids have poor health or vulnerable family members, so the risk for them is too high. So, if I can help, I should do it.
My experimental vaccine won’t be the vaccine that my friends get — at least not their first COVID vaccine — but it could be important here in the future and for people around the world now. I needed parental permission to participate. We saw an older woman on the news who talked about her experience in a polio vaccine trial as a child. My parents were persuaded by the thought that maybe someday I will look back on this and be proud of my contribution. I might have also hinted at nurturing a budding interest in science.
The actual study visit was easy. We arrived at a pediatrician’s office and joined families in the waiting room reading green papers — a short information packet for kids and a longer packet for parents. A brother and sister left. Their father hadn’t realized they might not get real vaccine. Another family followed; they could not make the second visit. We moved to an exam room, before we overheard who else was quitting. We signed those green papers, and I went through a quick exam and a blood draw. The nurse said the last step was the shot, and the “unblinded pharmacist” would give it to me. She explained that only that pharmacist knew if the computer assigned me vaccine or placebo. I spent the next 45 minutes nervously pacing back and forth in the little exam room. The pharmacist arrived and showed me a syringe with blue liquid. He said, “here’s your vaccine.” Does he say that to everyone? Or do the unlucky kids hear “here’s your injection?”
My trial is having trouble recruiting volunteers. I hope more families participate. It could help to provide information in advance. A fact sheet might have helped that family who did not understand the placebo design. A video would have helped me visualize what to expect. Better chance of getting a real vaccine could also increase participation. Maybe the drug companies could work together on a trial that compares the different vaccines to each other, so no kids get placebo. I would also appreciate more convenient scheduling. My study visits are Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. — exactly the same hours as my school.
I will always remember that I had a chance to help vaccine development and would regret it if I refused to help. Many adults are trying to find some meaning from the pandemic and kids deserve that chance too. I have to do a community service project next year. I want to promote vaccination. All the study staff thanked me for volunteering, but I think it is the least I can do. I just really want to go to summer camp and stop worrying about who I breathe on or who breathes on me.
Nathan Tureck is in 6 grade in Bethesda, Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.