You’re Not Guinea Pigs — The Facts about the COVID-19 Vaccine from a Trial Participant

Vaccines are some of the most significant medical advancements in modern history. Life expectancy in the United States has more than doubled over the last 200 years, due in large part to the development of vaccines and the elimination of many diseases such as polio and the mumps. Getting vaccinated is one of the most cost-efficient ways that we can not only protect our own health, but the health of others as well, by preventing the spread of contagious illnesses.

Yet, many people in our community still question the necessity of vaccines and even refuse to get vaccinated. Why? The United States has a history of conducting a few unethical medical practices, specifically against communities of color. Most vaccine skeptics will point to the Tuskegee experiment of 1932, in which 600 Black men were falsely promised treatment for syphilis and many died.

I am also intimately aware of the impacts of U.S. unethical medical experimentation — I am a Puerto Rican woman, and in the 1950s, hundreds of women in Puerto Rico were used as guinea pigs to test the first birth control pill without their knowledge or consent. I therefore always take it upon myself to thoroughly research any medical procedure I am considering undergoing.

I do not take decisions around my health and the health of those in my community lightly. I understand that the U.S. is built on racism and has historically treated Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities as disposable. That does not change the basic scientific fact, however, that we are in the midst of a global health crisis that none of us have seen in our lifetimes. It does not change the indisputable fact that the only way we can end this pandemic is by coming together as a collective and getting vaccinated against COVID.

It was with these considerations in mind that, in September 2020, I agreed to participate in the Pfizer/BioNTech study for a new COVID-19 vaccine. I have been interested in vaccine science for a few years now, and at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, began doing research on what it would take to get a vaccine ready for the general public as quickly as possible.

Here are some things that I learned about the COVID-19 vaccines, which influenced my decision to be part of the study, and why I fully and unreservedly support everyone getting these vaccines as soon as possible:

  • All vaccines are tested on tens of thousands of people and not approved for public distribution until they are believed to be safe. This happens in three phases: Phase 1 is a test of a few hundred people, Phase 2 tests a few thousand people, and Phase 3 tests the vaccine on tens of thousands of people. The phases do not advance until it can be proven that there are no serious side effects on a diverse group of people and that the vaccine is effective at preventing the illness. I was one of almost 40,000 people who participated in Phase 3 of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial. Now, the vaccine has been approved for distribution to the public because it has already been thoroughly tested and proven to be up to 94% effective.
  • The COVID-19 vaccines were produced at record speed because they are a different kind of vaccine. Most vaccines are made up of a weakened part of the virus, and it takes time to grow the virus first. The Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are not made up of any part of the virus that causes COVID-19 — they are a strand of messenger RNA that essentially gives your body the instructions to recognize and fight the SARS virus that causes COVID. Vaccine researchers have been working on this technology for years, so most of the groundwork was already done before the COVID crisis exploded.
  • We need as many people as possible to get vaccinated in order to save lives and end this pandemic. You may have heard of the term herd immunity — that means a disease can only be eliminated when 80–90% of the population has become immune to the illness. In the case of COVID-19, we really need everyone to get the vaccine, because getting the disease does not guarantee that you will not get it again. It is impossible for only one vaccine to reach billions of people around the world, so we need multiple vaccines to be proven successful and distributed in order for us to end the COVID-19 crisis.

When I participated in the study, I was told that I had a 50/50 chance of getting the real vaccine or a placebo (a saline solution that would have no effect) but they could not tell me which one I received to protect the integrity of the study. I was then to spend the next 6 months reporting my symptoms or side effects and let the doctors know if I tested positive for COVID at any time. I was given my first shot, then returned a week later for a blood test to see if my body was creating COVID antibodies, then returned three weeks after the first shot for a second shot and a COVID test.

My side effects were what most people are reporting at this point — I had pain in my arm at the injection site, and muscle soreness that lasted for 2–3 days. I was given a digital thermometer to check my temperature, but I never had a fever or any other symptoms. In March, I will return to the doctor to find out if I received the real vaccine or not, since that is 6 months after my initial shot and enough time for the doctors to evaluate any side effects I may have reported. I will technically be a part of the study for 2 years so they can continue to monitor any long-term effects in the unlikely event there are any.

In my observation, this process has been transparent and followed every protocol in place to ensure that the vaccine is safe and ready to be distributed quickly. With every medical procedure, there are risks, and certainly nothing is perfect. People with certain allergies or a history of adverse reactions to vaccines are being advised to talk their options through with their doctor before getting vaccinated.

However, the vast majority of people should expect to have no negative reactions to the vaccine, and the benefits of being immune to a deadly and highly contagious disease certainly outweigh the small risks. As of January 2021, almost 2 million people around the world have died from COVID-19. The U.S. has the highest death rate, with more than 367,000 people having lost their lives. Almost 29,000 people have died in California alone, and in our state prisons, 50,000 people have become infected and 150 people have died.

We cannot allow our fears of a small selection of prior medical misconduct cloud our judgement when it comes to making the decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Our individual actions affect the collective — we cannot think that choosing not to get vaccinated impacts only ourselves. When you leave yourself vulnerable to COVID-19, you risk infecting others with a disease that can have lifelong health impacts and possibly kill them.

As our hospitals are turning patients away, as healthcare professionals risk their lives to save others, and as essential workers put themselves on the frontlines, we must all take whatever steps we can to care for and protect one another. Getting the vaccine is such a small step that can have a world of impact. We all have the power to save lives.

Abolitionist | Intersectional Feminist | Founder & Executive Director of Initiate Justice (opinions are my own)

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