What it’s like to participate in a Pfizer coronavirus vaccine trial? This Bay Area man can tell you

San Francisco Chronicle:

By the time Dan Horowitz signed up to participate in one of the most closely watched experiments on the planet — a global clinical trial for a coronavirus vaccine made by the drug company Pfizer — he had been interested and closely tracking vaccine developments for a while.

Horowitz had not seen his parents since March, and was hoping he’d be selected for the study and receive an effective vaccine so he could fly and visit them.

He was accepted to the study, and received the first injection in September, and then a second in October, at a medical office building in Walnut Creek. Because the trial is a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study, neither he nor the researchers know whether he received the vaccine or a placebo. But Horowitz, 65, feels confident he received the vaccine because he tested negative for antibodies before the injections and tested positive for antibodies a couple of weeks after the injections. He felt tired and had some muscle soreness after the shots.

When Pfizer announced Monday that the vaccine appears to be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19, based on preliminary data, Horowitz was thrilled.

“I was so happy,” said Horowitz, a criminal defense attorney who has represented celebrity clients. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Pfizer’s early results were announced by the company in a press release and were based on an analysis by an independent monitoring board. They have not been peer reviewed, and the data is not final. Many questions remain, including how long the vaccine remains effective, and whether it works well in all demographics. About 44,000 people have enrolled in the trial worldwide.

While many infectious disease experts view the preliminary results as promising, the nation and the world are a ways away from ending the pandemic. At least one vaccine is expected to be authorized by the end of the year, most likely the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. But the vast majority of the population will probably not be able to get vaccinated until summer 2021 or later, experts predict.

Vaccines made by Pfizer and other drug companies — if and when they are found to be effective and receive Food and Drug Administration authorization — will be available to very few people at first. Health care workers who work closely with COVID-19 patients will likely gain access to vaccines first, followed by other groups based on their risk of exposure to the virus.

The trial mechanics are fairly straightforward and thorough, by Horowitz’s account. Before the first injection, researchers conducted a health screening, drew his blood and did a nasal swab test to confirm he did not have the coronavirus at the start of the study. Every week, he uses a mobile app to answer questions about whether he has any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, including headache and fever.

Horowitz, whose wife was slain in 2005 by a neighbor in the couple’s Lafayette home, said he did not feel nervous about potentially receiving an experimental vaccine. The vaccine technology being developed by Pfizer, called messenger RNA or mRNA, has been tested in humans but has not been licensed previously for use in a vaccine. Vaccines that use mRNA prompt the body’s own cells to produce proteins — in this case, the “spike” protein that gives the coronavirus its name — which triggers an immune response.

Last month, after receiving the two injections, Horowitz flew to see his parents. During a layover at a crowded airport, he described feeling safer than he otherwise would have.

“It was an out-of-world experience,” he said.

There are several other Bay Area sites enrolling volunteers for vaccine clinical trials, including Stanford for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Bridge HIV unit for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

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