Veterans Find A New Way To Serve: They're Volunteering for COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

Nov 30, 2020
Originally published on December 7, 2020 3:14 pm

More than 50 Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers are involved in trials to test vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, and the agency is calling on vets to volunteer.

Retired Col. Herminio Blas-Irizarry spent 26 years in the Army parachuting from planes, disposing bombs, and traveling to dangerous parts of the world.

Now he's seeing a different kind of threat: COVID-19.

When doctors at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa emailed him about a vaccine trial they were starting in November, he wasted no time before signing up.

"It's something I want to do for my country, not only for my country, the entire humanity, because 7.5 billion people in the world need this vaccine," said Blas.

The Tampa VA is studying a single-dose vaccine developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, part of Johnson & Johnson.

Doctors reviewed Blas' medical records and did blood work and a coronavirus test before clearing him for the study. He got his shot just before Thanksgiving.

Blas had a 50-50 chance of getting the vaccine or a placebo, but suspects he got the real deal.

He described the injection as slow and painful, and said that evening he had a headache, chills and night sweats. But all was well the next day.

"I ran my five miles on the treadmill like nothing, fine," Blas said.

Blas is one of thousands of volunteers around the world taking part in the Johnson & Johnson trial.

At the Tampa VA, director of infectious disease clinical research Dr. John Toney said the staff is hoping to get 400 veterans. They're looking for a diverse group of vets over the age of 40, ideally who have other health problems that would put them at-risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms like diabetes or lung disease, provided they are stable.

Toney said dozens of veterans have signed up so far, many expressing similar thoughts about the desire to serve. But he said they still need a lot more volunteers.

With promising vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna already on the horizon, Toney knows some people may be tempted to just wait for those to become available, but he said it's crucial to have a variety of options.

"We're going to need this to get more people immunized quicker than if we only have two vaccines," said Toney. "We're going to wait a lot longer if we don't have additional vaccines."

Another hurdle in recruiting volunteers is that the study lasts two years, with participants reporting how they feel daily.

That's important to learning how long the vaccine lasts, but Toney said it can seem daunting, especially for people wondering if they will get the placebo.

"That makes people very anxious, they don't want to go two years and not get a vaccine," he said. "That's happening with all the vaccines at this point, and (developers) really don't want people to just drop out of the study and then get another vaccine."

But Toney said people won't be left hanging even if they get a placebo. Once this vaccine or another proves effective, those in the placebo group will likely get a chance to take it.

Blas said he's committed to sticking with the study.

At 49, he considers himself a healthy guy, but knows he could still get the coronavirus. He could also have unexpected side effects from the vaccine down the road. Those are risks he's willing to take.

"I'm not afraid of anything ... well, I'm afraid of my mom," he said with a laugh.

She wasn't happy when she learned her son was participating in this trial.

Blas said many of his Puerto Rican and Colombian family members reacted with fear when he told them what he'd done. He said it's a cultural thing, related to barriers in language and access to care but also from mistrust.

"Because there is a history of medical tests that is questionable," Blas said, citing unethical birth control experiments white scientists performed on Puerto Rican women in the 1950's as an example.

Past medical abuses like that against Hispanic, Black and Native American people are partially why it's been difficult to get more diversity in the vaccine trials, according to Dr. Toney.

But with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting people of color, it's critical to know these vaccines work for them.

"We would think they would be just as effective in those populations, but without data, we don't know," Toney said.

Blas is urging fellow Hispanics and all vets to volunteer.

"Please help us, and when I say 'us,' it's us as Americans," he said. "This vaccine will save our lives, and we never stop serving."

Time will tell if this vaccine does in fact protect people from the coronavirus, but Blas said he is proud to have helped find out.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.