One Participant’s Experience in a Pitt COVID-19 Vaccine Trial

A person in a black face mask and T-shirt receiving a vaccinationToward the end of May, City of Pittsburgh police officer Antonio Ruiz was surfing the web and came across a government website related to coronavirus prevention. There was a questionnaire, which he filled out. Doing so, he said, “was totally random and by accident.”

At the same time, in labs around the world, scientists searched for a vaccine. Promising candidates emerged, and with them, a chance for some of us to make a difference.

The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC were also gearing up for participation in the COVID-19 Prevention Network and Operation Warp Speed, the national initiative to accelerate development of a safe and effective vaccine to protect recipients from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine being developed by Moderna Inc. was the first to be tested in the program.

“Participating in Operation Warp Speed is a huge honor. This is a chance for Pittsburgh to have an impact that’s not just local or national—it’s going to be worldwide,” said Judy Martin, director of the Pittsburgh Vaccine Trials Unit at the University of Pittsburgh and professor of pediatrics at Pitt. Martin said that 254 people from this region and 31,000 nationwide participated.

A couple of days after Ruiz filled out that fateful questionnaire, he received a call. “Would you be interested in participating in a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial?” Yes, Ruiz replied.

“The first time I went in and saw a doctor was in first week of August and I got first dose of the study drug,” he said. “I waited for 30 minutes to see if there were side effects, and I didn’t have any, other than a sore arm and some fatigue. I had an app on my phone, a daily diary regarding symptoms.”

A month later, he went in for a second dose of the trial drug. Being a double-blind trial, half of the study’s participants were given the vaccine, while the others were given a shot of saline. No one knew at the time which they were getting.

“I felt bad the second day after the second dose. It was like a bad hangover,” Ruiz said. The symptoms abated quickly, though. Over the next two months, he fielded regular calls from nurses checking in on his health and mental state.

Ruiz figured that he was likely part of the group that received the vaccine since, he thought, saline doesn’t cause that sort of “hangover” reaction.

“I was probably exposed (to the virus) multiple times doing what I do,” he said. “It boosted my confidence a little bit knowing I was probably vaccinated, but I still wore masks and socially distanced.”

Not long ago, the Pittsburgh Police Department began discussing when and how to vaccinate its officers. Ruiz thought that if he had indeed received the vaccine, he’d like to know so, when the time came, another officer could receive his dose.

On Jan. 7, Ruiz’s suspicions were confirmed when he went to the study site to be “unblinded,” to find out if he got the vaccine or the placebo. He was indeed vaccinated and protected.

“I’m a 50-year-old cop,” he said. “I'm not going to win a high-speed [foot] chase like a 26-year-old cop and get the bad guy. This was my high-speed chase. I rolled the dice and came out with a good hand. I have peace of mind knowing I did my part in all this.”