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First Michigan residents get experimental COVID-19 vaccine; more volunteers sought

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The first volunteers from Michigan took part Wednesday in a nationwide experimental trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. 

Henry Ford Health System administered the first shots to residents as part of the Phase 3 trial for the Moderna drug. The Detroit-based health system is one of nearly 90 sites nationwide and the only in Michigan involved in the study.

Researchers hope to enroll 30,000 volunteers across the country to receive the vaccine, which is administered through two injections. Moderna is developing the vaccine in partnership with the National Institutes for Health. Nationwide, more than 150 coronavirus vaccines are being developed, and 20 of those are close to or in clinical trials.

"This is a historic time for us," said Dr. Marcus Zervos, division chief for infectious disease at Henry Ford Health. "COVID-19 is causing millions of infections, hundreds of thousands of deaths and the vaccine is our best hope at resolving the infection, getting it under control."

Study participants in the double-blind trial have a 50% chance of receiving a placebo instead of the vaccine, which does not contain the actual virus, according to the hospital system. The vaccine contains mRNA, a genetic code that triggers the production of a protein believed to help the immune system produce antibodies to the virus. 

"The vaccine, although it's an early study, has been shown to produce antibody responses that are similar to what would happen with somebody that has a natural infection with the virus," Zervos said. "It’s been shown to produce responses to white blood cells, which are very important to fighting off later infections."

The study’s first two phases involved more than 600 participants, according to Henry Ford. Phase 2 showed the vaccine helped produce antibodies, and Phase 3 will determine whether it protects against COVID-19.

Michigan's overall case tally reached 84,707 and the death count hit 6,221 on Wednesday, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. When probable cases are included, the death tally is 6,478 and cases total 93,893.

Dr. Marcus Zervos welcomes Victor McFadden and Ashley Wilson, the first volunteers to receive the trial vaccine, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at a Henry Ford Health Center in Detroit.

Among those who received shots Wednesday was Victor McFadden, 64. He was ready to move from Detroit to South Carolina in March when the pandemic hit Michigan, preventing him from joining his sister in Myrtle Beach. 

McFadden, a former housekeeper at Henry Ford Hospital, said he thought of his co-workers and of his sister, who is a nurse, and decided he wanted to do anything to help search for a cure.

"I had everything packed and this happened, but if I can give it a jumpstart to finding a way to get this over with, I'm all for it," he said. "I wanted to see if there was something I could do to help. These young people aren't taking it seriously and I'm stuck here in Michigan so why not do something that's going to help the world."

Victor McFadden, one of the first to receive the trial vaccine, gets ready Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at a Henry Ford Health Center in Detroit.

Participants like McFadden will be given two shots about 28 days apart, will visit the enrollment center about seven times and will be followed by study organizers, who will check in about once a month for two years.

Researchers will monitor individuals for COVID-19 symptoms or the antibodies the vaccine strives to produce, Zervos said.

As McFadden and another volunteer, Ashley Wilson, 24, head into the unknown, both say they trusted doctors and were not fearful to receive the first injection.

"My family is more nervous than I am," said Wilson, who lives in Taylor. "I'm excited to help find answers as we're all so desperate for this nightmare to end. My mom, who works in a nursing home, had a long pause before I left the house.

"You realize how short life is, and I would rather be part of the solution than the problem."

Dr. Marcus Zervos and Ashley Wilson, one of the first to receive the trial vaccine, meet Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at a Henry Ford Health Center in Detroit.

Wilson graduated from the University of Michigan in 2018 and moved to New York City to work as a research assistant. She returned home in June after her office closed due to the pandemic.

"If the pandemic didn't hit, I'd probably still be working in the bustling part of the financial district, across the street from the World Trade Center, where I felt really at home, and I'd probably be less stressed out," she said. "The silver lining is that I've been able to come home and see my family."

Enrollment will continue over the next two months. Henry Ford Health joins 87 hospitals and universities now involved in the study.

Participants in the trial must be older than 18 and free of illnesses or conditions that compromise the immune system. People who have had COVID-19 before are not eligible for the study, Zervos said. 

Among those desired for the trial are people at high risk of exposure to the virus, seniors older than 65 considered at risk for a severe case of the virus and individuals with "pre-existing medical conditions that are stable at the time of screening." 

Each participant will be paid $1,000 if all of the necessary visits are completed. The subjects need to continue to social distance and operate as usual, officials said.

People can volunteer at www.henryford.com/ModernaVaccine and, if contacted by the hospital, finish enrollment in Detroit at the Henry Ford Hospital Emergency Department, the seventh floor of the New Center One Building or the employee health clinic at the HAP building.

"Now is a critical time for us," Zervos said. "Henry Ford has had a history of fighting important infectious diseases, even from the first opening of the hospital, we fought pandemic flu ... and had a hand in polio and smallpox eradication."

The volunteer recruitment comes as President Donald Trump is again pushing the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment. While several studies have found it to be ineffective, a Henry Ford Health study released in early July found the drug “significantly” decreased the death rate of patients involved in the analysis.

Zervos, who helped lead the Henry Ford Health study, urged more research to see if hydroxychloroquine works on COVID-19.

More than 600 people participated in the first two phases of the Moderna vaccine trial. The first phase determined the drug to be safe and the second phase showed the body produced antibodies in response to the vaccine. 

In the third phase, researchers will discern whether the antibodies successfully prevent people from getting the virus. The timeline will depend on how fast enrollment of the 30,000 subjects is completed. It's unclear how many are currently enrolled.

Side effects experienced by participants so far include a sore arm and redness and a few subjects have had flu-like symptoms, Zervos said. 

Should people become infected during the study, they would be cared for by the health system, officials said.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_