From hesitancy to hope: One physician’s journey to being a Moderna Trial participant

Dr. Lou Edje/MSR News Online

As I walked into the exam room early in 2020, the patient gasped and covered her mouth with both hands. She looked at me and said, “I’ve never had a Black doctor before!”

We hugged because in that moment there were shared experiences that we had as Black women living in America, which we would not have to spend energy explaining to each other as we started our patient-physician relationship. We know that Black patients are twice as likely to trust a messenger of her own racial/ethnic group as compared to a White counterpart. And we know that 72% of Black Americans and 66% of Latinx Americans trust their health care professional.1

As the pandemic wore on and it became evident that Black and Latinx communities were being disproportionately affected by COVID, these shared experiences would become more important. We know that 55% of Black Americans and 73% of Latinx Americans know someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 48% of Black and 52% of Latinx patients know someone who has been hospitalized with, or died from, COVID.

Yet, according to a recent study, only 14% of Black Americans say they trust in the vaccine’s safety, and 18% trust its effectiveness. Additionally, only 28% of Blacks and 47% of Latinx Americans believe that the vaccine will be tested specifically for safety in their racial/ethnic group.

Understanding that the long runway to any discussion on vaccines with communities of color is littered with systemic racism and horrific truths about clinical trials like Tuskegee, I knew I would have an uphill battle asking patients to consider being vaccinated. It’s a fact that up to 70% of people need to have immunity to the virus for us to start on our path back to normal as a society. I knew I had to have a credible platform for these discussions and might have to join a COVID vaccine trial.

Though my health system was one of the 90 sites for the Moderna Trial, it wasn’t until my vibrant stepmother died and my step sibs’ raw heartache was laid bare that I was jolted into action. My husband and I had not celebrated our first anniversary yet, so he was concerned that I not participate in a trial that contained any virus.

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I reassured him mRNA technology would not introduce any virus into my body. In fact, mRNA is a recipe book for making one tiny part of the virus, the spike protein that is on the outside.

The recipe is read by the body, which then makes antibodies, or weapons against it, so when the actual virus presents itself, the body knows how to protect itself. The mRNA also has no access to my genetic code, which is secured in a safety deposit box called a nucleus within my cells.

He was also concerned about how rapidly this vaccine had been developed. I explained that coronaviruses, which is the family of viruses that the COVID-19 virus is in, have been researched for almost 20 years.

It’s as if the cake of the vaccine had been baked for 20 years. The only thing that happened in the last year was finding out the details of the spike protein, or if you like, the flavor of icing on the cake.

It took 66 days to determine the recipe for the spike protein, and then it was time to test it out. So it wasn’t rushed after all; it had been carefully baked and just needed to be frosted. He was immediately relieved and supportive.

As a trial participant, I had to record any experience including fatigue, fever, muscle aches, headaches, and joint pain. I had a heavy, sore arm after the second shot but was able to work.

Nobody who got the vaccine in the trial got severe COVID (no one was hospitalized or died), and 94.1 of every 100 trial participants who received the vaccine had no COVID at all. Moderna paused their study part way through to make sure that it enrolled as many Black and Latinx participants as possible to match the percentage of us in the general population.

We have now lost four precious family members, whom I shall never be able to hug again. Please get your shot, because 30,000 of us participated in the trial so you would not have to take a risk being first in line.

Dr. Lou Edje was the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians’ 2012 Family Physician of The Year. She started at Michigan State University at age 16, where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in physiology. She was president of her medical school student body at the University of Michigan. She is the associate dean of graduate medical education at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where she oversees the education of over 700 residents and fellows.

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