My third appointment with researchers this week, as a participant in Covid-19 vaccine trials, was overshadowed by the news that the Oxford vaccine will probably be available to older folk like me in the early part of next year – maybe as early as January or February.
The vaccine I am trialling – the Novavax one – will have test results in January, and probably be available in the summer. So what happens to us guinea pigs when the Oxford vaccine is available, I wanted to know. As a reasonably healthy 75-year-old, I’m likely to be – in the doctor’s words – “at the back of the front of the queue” for it. I have signed up to be in the Novavax study for a year. But if I have the Oxford vaccine, do I cease to be any use?
The charming young doctor smiled broadly and said “that’s a really good question” for all the world as though everyone he saw had not asked the same question. The answer is that as soon as I’m offered a vaccine, they will “unblind” me – that is, tell me whether I am one of the 50% of guinea pigs who got the trial vaccine, or whether I got the placebo instead.
If I got the placebo, I should take the Oxford vaccine, and I will be no further use to them. That’s not how he put it – he talked about how useful I had already been – but it’s what he meant.
If I got the trial vaccine, then if in January it’s shown to work, I can turn down my place in the Oxford vaccine queue – or take it, if I wish. If I turn it down, will I still be any use in the study? The answer, it turns out, is a very definite maybe. The problem is that once I know I have the vaccine in my body, it will affect my behaviour, and that will skew the results.
I realised he was right. I had just travelled two stops on the underground to get to the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead, obsessively seeking out a lonely corner in the end carriage. Would I have taken that trouble if I knew I had been vaccinated?
I may still be some small use. They have yet to decide whether data from “unblinded” guinea pigs may still help in some way. But the inevitable wastage of participants that will occur when a vaccine is available does not help the researchers.
The doctor asked the usual questions about my health, and passed me on to an equally charming nurse. You know a nurse is about to take your blood when he asks with elaborate casualness whether you have any interesting plans for the rest of the day. Well, I said, I have my U3A French conversation group, now meeting on Zoom. “Vraiment? Vous parlez couramment?” he said, and I never noticed the needle going in. It turns out he did French A-level.
I’ll be back at the end of January, but for me, selfishly, the urgency will go out of it when the Oxford vaccine is available. At 75, there’s a voice that won’t be stilled, asking how long you will have this blessed good health, tremulously fearful that the moment you are free to do all the fun things you are planning, your health will give way. The vaccine will have ridden to the rescue too late.
I was going to have a great year in 2020. Apart from a fair bit of travelling, my play about Clement Attlee was to have its third outing at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate in April. We put it off until November, and now we have put it off until the first week in February. Please let us perform it then.
I want my life back while I can enjoy it. So is it worth carrying on researching, if a vaccine has already been found? They say it is. There will be different vaccines, good for different purposes. And they may get cheaper. I would like to think this means they will provide it at cut rates to poorer countries, but that’s not how pharmaceutical companies work. If anyone is going to subsidise poor countries, it will have to be rich countries.
So they are still recruiting. The Novavax study has almost reached its target of 15,000 guinea pigs in the UK, and has achieved the target of having a quarter of them over 65. Other studies still need more people. Some researchers are worried about diversity among the volunteers. “We have a responsibility to ensure that our participants reflect the community we serve,” says Dr Fiona Burns, lead investigator at the Royal Free.
I’ll be back in two months as promised, though I don’t know how long after that. But for now, I took my leave. “À bientôt,” said the nurse. “À la prochaine,” said I.
• Francis Beckett is a journalist, playwright and author of several books, including biographies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.