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'We're All In This': Janssen Vaccine Trial In Miami Seeks Additional Participants

Greg Cooper.jpg
Courtesy of Ransom Everglades School
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Ransom Everglades School teacher Greg Coooper is a volunteer in the Janssen vaccine trial underway at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Pfizer vaccines are being distributed across Florida this week. One vaccine still in the trial phase is the Janssen one, under Johnson and Johnson.

In November, WLRN’s Veronica Zaragovia spoke with Dr. Dushyantha Jaweera, the head doctor-researcher at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine for the Janssen trial.

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To follow up that discussion, WLRN spoke with one of the trial's volunteers, Greg Cooper, a lymphoma survivor and a government teacher at Ransom Everglades School.

Here's an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: Why did you decide to sign up for this vaccine trial?

COOPER: About 10 years ago, I had lymphoma and I had great care at UM, at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, and as COVID was unfolding, I heard about all of the research that was going into vaccines, going into drug development.

And I thought about sort of my own experience and how I certainly benefited from research that was done on drugs for chemotherapy, for example, in the past. And it struck me that there weren't a lot of things I could do, right? I'm a high school teacher, I'm not involved in the medical field at all. But it seems that as these sorts of efforts were unfolding, they were only going to unfold at the speed that we needed them to unfold, as a society, if people volunteered. And the vaccine studies — and I had looked into a lot of the technology behind the vaccines — the Janssen trial, for example, is using essentially a cold virus vector for the coronavirus protein, and that's a technology that's been used in other vaccines.

So I felt like, it had been tried before, it was it was safe in other contexts, so I honestly felt like the risk was pretty low and and the benefit was high. And, as the doctor who's running the study said in your interview with him, this only works if people volunteer.

Could you tell us a bit more on your experience getting diagnosed and surviving lymphoma?

I got the official report on my birthday in October of 2010. I had great care at Sylvester, I guess I had a form of lymphoma that's relatively easy to treat and I was treated through about March 2011. I know that one of the drugs was a monoclonal antibody, which has come up in the COVID treatment.

In thinking about what I was treated with and how quickly I recovered, it struck me as I certainly benefitted from drug development that has occurred over the last 10 to 20 years. I can't tell you it was the deciding factor in my deciding to do this, but certainly I did think about it from the perspective of being helped by others in the past — who obviously took part in clinical trials and who were given the drugs that I received on a on a trial basis to prove that they worked. And I was the beneficiary of that.

You don’t know if you received the placebo or the actual vaccine, but how are you feeling?

It's only one shot, which is nice, so I feel fine, I did have a reaction to the vaccine. My arm was a little sore the next day. I had just kind of a slight little bit of muscle aches, a little bit of chills. And for me, a low-grade fever. But that's like 99, right? And it lasted all of four or five hours, and then the next morning I was perfectly fine. And ever since then, ever since then I've been fine.

What would you say to someone who wants to volunteer but is on the fence about it?

The care I've gotten so far at UM has been terrific. They explained everything very well to me. There was ample time to ask questions about the study and there was never any pressure to do it.

So I guess I would say there's nothing that I've come across in my few visits that I've had, and in the research that I've done, that gave me really any pause — knowing that there was going to be a team monitoring me along the way. I have to do weekly symptom checks to to see if I have any COVID symptoms. I have an app on my phone where I can connect directly with the study staff if I have any questions at all. I have contacted them once or twice with just some mundane questions and they've gotten back to me right away. So I do feel like there's a real sense among the study staff that the people who volunteer are valued by the study staff and I do I do feel like, if anything were to pop up as a concern, I'd get an immediate response and the ability to go in for care immediately.

The information I have received has been extremely thorough and designed to help me make good decisions about my ultimate choice to participate and the research I've done has has helped assuage any fears I might have had about an untested or a new type of technology.

Did they ask you to be less careful about getting COVID-19 during as a volunteer in this trial?

The guidance they gave me was to just go about my daily life. I'm not taking extra risks because obviously I don't know if I even got the vaccine in the first place. My job as a high school teacher inherently involves being around a lot of people. You know, we're back on campus.

I think we've done a really terrific job at taking precautions on our campus. We are masked all the time. Everybody on campus wears a mask all day, every day, but I am in classrooms with kids. We're spaced out. We're using different classrooms than we usually to try to remain about six feet apart. I wear masks everywhere I go except when I'm out running, and when I do that, I try to do it early in the morning and I go on routes that typically avoid groups of people.

So I've been very cautious and I've been trying to follow all the guidelines throughout all of this. I would hate to, especially given my my job, I would hate to be in a position where I am less responsible, I contract the disease, I don't know it and, even though I'm masked on campus, I'm on campus around a lot of people. So I don't think it'd be very responsible for me to to bank on the fact that I got the actual vaccine.

Volunteers in the Janssen study get compensated somewhere around $1,000. Does compensation matter? Do you think volunteers should be paid?

You know, I hadn't given it much thought when I went, I guess it was in the back of my mind that they did compensate people for these. I think I was assuming they might compensate me for, like, parking, you know?

I'm not upset that I'm getting a little bit of compensation for it. Certainly not only travel expenses, right? But there is a risk involved, especially if you're trying to get a cross-section of people. If you're trying to get a diverse group of people and you're trying to honestly show people that you value their time and the risk that they're taking. It is true that it's a bit of an unknown, and for a lot of people, that might be tough to get over.

And also think for a lot of people, you know, it's tough to spend the time going to the visits, and I think it probably helps get a more diverse group of recipients than simply, you know, a subset of people who can already afford the time and have the flexibility with their work and have the ability to do these things.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from people about your decision to volunteer?

You know, mostly positive. Some, one or two, are a little bit more skeptical. Most people have just been sort of intrigued at the process, just trying to better understand what that it entails. You know, a few have expressed concern about, "OK, so what happens when a vaccine actually does come out, right? You'll be in the middle of this trial and you might not necessarily be able to to go out and benefit from that right away."

I've actually discussed it a little bit with my students because we've been talking about drug development. We've been talking about the role of the FDA and how government has been involved in funding some of these efforts. And what does it mean for something even to go through the FDA approval process? Why do we have the FDA to begin with. I mean, I think it's good for for the students to see that all this this stuff, is not theoretical. And they seemed interested also.

I mean, everyone there seems to be a real sense of community spirit. We're all in this. When I've told people what I've been doing, the response has been very much, "Oh, that's great." And not everybody's necessarily willing to do it themselves, but the response has been very has been very positive, which has been nice.

Eligible volunteers must have not had COVID-19 and will be followed for two years. People who are interested should email Janssencovidvaccine@miami.edu or call 305-243-0952.