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Case study: COVID-19 vaccine research gave former blood donor a chance to help others again

Patient story: Sarah

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and opportunities to take part in vaccine research came along, Sarah, from Hertfordshire, quickly signed-up.

Ten years ago she was a regular blood donor. But a blood transfusion put a stop to that. “I really wanted to help in those sorts of ways but certainly wasn’t able to give blood anymore”, Sarah said.

“I was doubly committed to the idea of giving blood because the blood transfusion I had certainly helped in my recovery — maybe even saved my life. So when I heard about the vaccine trial I thought ‘this is something that I can actually do, now that blood donation is no longer an option for me.”

Sarah signed up to take part in the COV002 trial at Northwick Park Hospital, part of London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust. Supported locally by the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) North West London, the trial is one of many set-up to identify potential vaccines for COVID-19.

“All of this is happening and you feel quite powerless to be able to do anything that’s helpful.”

The urgent need for a vaccine also encouraged Sarah to volunteer. And living with her partner — an NHS worker — highlighted this urgent need further. “Having someone in the family who is working in such a high pressure environment gives you a different perspective. Seeing all the extra precautions people are having to take and all the big decisions that are going on at the moment.

“All of this is happening and you feel quite powerless to be able to do anything that’s helpful”, she said. “And I was also on furlough to begin with, then working from home. So I had the time.”

But the trial didn’t turn out to be a huge time commitment. First up was a half-hour screening visit last July. “They asked lots of questions about my general health — checking I wasn’t pregnant or had COVID-19 antibodies. They also took a blood sample”, she said.

Sarah’s second visit was to get the vaccine (or the placebo). “That was a tiny bit longer because you had to stay behind to make sure you didn’t have any side effects or reactions, which I didn’t.” Another vaccine visit was added soon after when the trial also started testing the effectiveness of booster shots.

Check-ups have been at the three month, six month and twelve month marks. Sarah has just done her six month check-up.

So did Sarah have to do anything outside of her visits to the hospital? “I had to take away a big pack of the swab tests. So I’ve been doing a swab test and a questionnaire every week since then”, she said. “And that will carry on until at least June.

“ was reassuring to have access to the swab tests.”

“The swab is fine. I mean, I know it’s uncomfortable and people hate it. And it’s not like I particularly enjoy it. At first there was lots of gagging and sneezing. But it’s 30-seconds out of my day and I’m quite used to it now.

“And it was reassuring to have access to the swab tests. I actually received a positive test a few weeks ago, which wasn’t what I was expecting at all — I was completely asymptomatic. But it was really nice having that picked up because I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

“The questionnaire is really short. You have to talk a little bit about your behaviour — are you wearing a mask and washing your hands. Mostly it’s quite depressing because it’s just a list of questions like ‘have you been to the pub this week?’ and ‘are you taking public transport?’. So it’s just a list of everything you are missing out on.”

“The process of testing, to me as a lay person, feels really rigorous.”

Volunteering in research has led to some interesting conversations for Sarah. “People are really interested, so I will talk about it”, she said. “Some think it’s really impressive but I think that’s because people think there’s more risk than there is. So it’s been easy for me to say ‘it’s not a big deal’ in that sense.

“The process of testing, to me as a lay person, feels really rigorous. I feel really comfortable taking the vaccine based on my understanding of this clinical process.”

Will taking part in research be on the cards for Sarah in the future? “Well I’ve signed up for all the things to find out what happens next. I’ll definitely be up for doing something like this again.”