UPDATE: This Seattle man volunteered to be injected with an experimental COVID-19 vaccine: 'It was kind of my duty as a healthy individual to step up'
By Jaimy Lee
Neal Browning is one of the volunteers who signed up to receive Moderna's experimental COVID-19 vaccine
This interview is the second in a series of conversations MarketWatch will conduct with some of the leading voices in the U.S. on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neal Browning, a 46-year-old network engineer at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), was one of the first people in the U.S. to receive a dose of
The father of three volunteered for the Phase 1 clinical trial in February, within a month of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. and Moderna announcing plans to develop a vaccine for what was then called the novel coronavirus.
A handful of vaccine candidates who have entered the clinic in the U.S. reported interim results from the first phase of testing; however, Moderna, a preclinical biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Mass., was the first to do so. Eight of the trial's 45 participants developed neutralizing antibodies (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/modernas-stock-soars-then-dips-after-questions-arise-around-the-limited-data-shared-about-its-covid-19-vaccine-2020-05-20), thought to be a key benchmark in creating a vaccine that will protect to some degree against future COVID-19 infections.
Browning as well as some other participants in the trial have spoken publicly about their experience in the trial, whether they suffered side effects, and why they decided to volunteer to take a dose of a vaccine that has yet to prove its safety or efficacy. This is rare, in the world of high-stakes clinical trials, primarily because most trials for treatments enroll the sick, and not the healthy, as is required for vaccines in the early phases of testing.
"I felt like it was kind of my duty as a healthy individual to step up," Browning, a resident of Bothell, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, told MarketWatch.
MarketWatch: What made you decide to enroll in a trial like this?
Neal Browning: Well, being in the Seattle area, and actually living about 4 miles from where the first cluster outbreak (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/older-people-account-for-more-than-half-of-the-us-coronavirus-cases-are-seniors-at-risk-2020-02-07) happened at the retirement community really put things into perspective for me. We had the first confirmed case (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/cdc-confirms-one-case-of-coronavirus-in-the-us-2020-01-21-14913344) in the U.S. in my state. We had the first confirmed cluster outbreak and the first confirmed death (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/another-west-coast-coronavirus-case-of-unknown-origin-is-reported-this-time-an-oregon-teacher-2020-02-29). Seeing how this was affecting my local community, the fact that I grew up in a medical household -- my mom's a registered nurse, my fiancé's a registered nurse -- and I have young children [and] we always make sure they have their flu shots and their vaccinations done each year, it seemed like this was really a time when humanity needed a kick. I felt like it was kind of my duty as a healthy individual to step up and be an example for my children and show everyone that this is what it takes to live in a cohesive society.
MarketWatch: When did you receive the vaccine?
Browning: The first one was March 16, and the next was 28 days later as a booster. Both were the same dosage amount.
MarketWatch: That was a very intense week (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/coronavirus-update-169387-cases-6513-deaths-american-business-goes-into-lockdown-2020-03-16). That was when a lot of the formal lockdowns went into place in the U.S. I think it was right around time that Americans realized how serious this pandemic could be.
MarketWatch: What was that like going into [the clinic] to get the shot on that day?
Browning: I found out about it through a discussion with a friend on Facebook that I've known for 20-plus years. He said, "Hey, did you know that Kaiser Permanente's doing a call-out for people to volunteer for a vaccination trial for COVID-19?" This was back around February 28, 29th, before it'd really started ramping up in the United States. But we'd seen how bad things could get with what was happening in Italy and other countries around the world. By the time the 16th rolled around, as you said, things were really starting to come home and be something you couldn't deny anymore.
I've been working from home already for a couple of weeks at that point in time. The schools were closed. The first time going in was light traffic, very unusual for an early morning heading into the downtown area. The second (28 days later) booster shot, there was masking required. When I stepped off the elevator, there was a nurse waiting out in the entry area taking people's temperatures with an infrared reader and then giving you a little sticky note to say that it was OK. They had lines set up just four weeks later in the doctor's office, where they marked off where people could sit and couldn't sit. There was a lot of social distancing, keeping 6 feet away from the counter when you check in, things like that. A lot happened in a short period of time.
MarketWatch: I'd forgotten that Seattle was one of the first places to really shut down.
Browning: We were very early on. In fact, my kids' school district was the first one in the country to completely shut it down.
MarketWatch: Did you have any side effects?
Browning: The following morning when I first woke my arm where I got the injection was very slightly sore. And that lasted about 5 to 10 minutes and once I was awake and moving around and getting my blood flowing, it went away. But honestly, it hurt far less than the residual pain I've had from the various flu shots and things that I've taken in the past.
MarketWatch: And then when did you find out you developed antibodies?
Browning: The first notice that I had was because I was the second patient in the initial group of a low dosage. [Moderna tested three doses of its vaccine candidate in the Phase 1 trial.] Moderna released a press release on May 18, where they said the first four people in the small dose and the first four in the medium dose had produced antibodies that were at or exceeding levels seen in recovered COVID-19 patients. We not only had antibodies but also the neutralizing antibodies that prevent the cells from actually entering the human cells and infecting them.
MarketWatch: Did they let you know?
Browning: It was the public release (https://investors.modernatx.com/news-releases/news-release-details/moderna-announces-positive-interim-phase-1-data-its-mrna-vaccine). They keep it pretty blind. In fact, I've had absolutely no direct contact with anybody at Moderna. And when I asked the people at the research facility through Kaiser, they said that they're even kept in the dark, and nothing's being told to them. I mean, you want to keep it blind, as unbiased as possible.
MarketWatch: Has anything surprised you about the clinical trial process? Would you do it again knowing what you know now?
Browning: I would absolutely do it again, knowing what I know now. The company was new, 10 years old, had never produced anything that actually came to market. They had done mRNA technology before and are still continuing that with Zika. But this was never even trialed on animals before being injected into us. So we were the first animal and human trial subjects. I understood the need for it, and I understood the pressing acceleration speed that had to get something out sooner than later. We can't let this go for 10-plus years like some vaccines can take.
I never had a feeling of my safety being a back-seat passenger or being taken for granted. The team did really well at sending us home with a journal to keep track of any discomfort, pain, joint swelling. Since this is all new, we don't know what might cause a reaction or complicate things. So they did a deep dive into our medical backgrounds: Every surgery we've ever had, every major illness, any underlying conditions, what medicine we were taking, all the way down to even multivitamins, and the reason we were taking those medicines.
MarketWatch: Are you the type of person who tracks your steps, your heart rate?
Browning: Yeah, I have a Fitbit that I've worn for years. It tracks my sleep, heart rate, all that. They didn't ask for that. But they did take our pulse and blood pressure every time we're in the office, and they do blood draws every time we come in, and they did a whole physical for me as well as drug screening. They gave us a thermometer that they calibrated to take home for the first eight days after each of the two injections, to take our temperature every afternoon, before midnight and after 4 p.m., in order to track if we had even a slight fever. But I had no side effects other than that very slight sore muscle area.
MarketWatch: You're an engineer. What's it like to go from that world into the clinical world?
Browning: It's honestly a lot of parallel. Being an engineer and being of an analytical mind-set, I did research. I went through and dug deep and tried to really understand what this technology was and how it was going and learned a lot. It was one of the reasons that I felt comfortable with moving ahead, [even though] I am engaged and I have small children and don't want to do anything that risks my livelihood and their health and their futures.
MarketWatch: Going through this experience, how has it shaped your worldview on the pandemic and the U.S. response?
Browning: I'm really disappointed in not having a unified response at the national level. I'm very disappointed in the placement of instincts and feelings over facts and data and actual science. I think it's cost a lot of lives. I think it's caused a lot of pain and suffering. And compared to the way a lot of other countries handled it much better, it's honestly cost a lot of money and livelihood of businesses as well. We definitely could have done better and as a first-world country, we certainly should have.
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