Why I chose to be a Covid-19 lab rat

I believe that there are lots of people who just need to be given more information and reassurance that whatever vaccines that are approved for use in Malaysia are safe and effective, based on clinical trials involving lots of volunteers, whether from here or elsewhere.

When it comes to evaluating new treatments, clinical trials remain the “gold standard” as they are actually tested on humans, rather than in the lab or via computer modelling. By this, it means testing is done on sufficiently large cohorts of people, and not just in a small group, in order to arrive at conclusive findings. On a global scale, the Comirnaty and mRNA-1273 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna TX respectively, both based on mRNA technology, have undergone extensive clinical trials (outside Malaysia) to be where they are now.

As part of risk management, no country should rely only on two vaccines or manufacturers, even if they are from big or well known companies.

Singapore, for example, will be looking at evaluating mRNA-1273 as well as CoronaVac, which is from China’s Sinovac Biotech, as part of its diversification strategy.

When news came that China’s Institute for Medical Biology and China Academy of Medical Sciences (IMBCAMS) was looking for 3,000 volunteers in Malaysia to test the safety and effectiveness of its vaccine candidate, I quickly signed up for this opportunity to do my part for science.

Yet to be named, IMBCAMS’ candidate that uses extracts from inactivated SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) will be tested on 34,000 candidates worldwide, including the 3,000 Malaysians.

I believe that if enough participants enrol in the study hosted at nine public hospitals here, then high quality data (on whether the vaccine works and what side effects can arise) can be generated.

Yes, a Covid-19 vaccine needs to be proven on humans, and I am not about to wait for “other people” to show whether it is effective, or whether it will turn humans into mutants.

With news that some richer countries are “hoarding” or over-ordering supplies, Malaysia too, needs to diversify its source of proven vaccines.

I am happy that I am not alone in this, for I have met many wonderful people at the clinical trial unit, such as lawyer Datuk Theng Book and his wife Wong Thye Kwan, both in their early 60s, as well as university student Kamilia Kamarul Bahrin, 23, who still went for it despite her father not being supportive of it.

Together, we hope that we can encourage more people to join relevant clinical trials at this crucial juncture of humanity, should the need arise somewhere down the road.

In the larger scheme of things, injecting ourselves with an unproven vaccine is not at all a high price to pay, given the far harsher realities endured by many of our fellow citizens.

Health experts have said that ending the Covid-19 pandemic is contingent upon lots of people getting vaccinated so that the population can achieve “herd immunity”, otherwise known as community immunity.

Herd immunity refers to the broad ability of the population to resist a specific disease. It works like this: If enough people are resistant to the agent of a disease, such as a virus or bacterium, it has nowhere to go, and either fades away, or remains contained in tiny pockets.

In the case of the polio virus, the high degree of vaccination against it has practically eradicated the disease. As of last year, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries where the disease is still classified as endemic.

For smallpox, immunisation has been so successful that scientists are keeping this virus alive for research purposes in only four labs around the world.

Under herd immunity through vaccination, while not every single individual may be immune, the group as a whole has protection as mass uptake of vaccines will result in fewer high-risk people overall.

As a result, infection rates drop, and the disease fades away.

When it comes to fighting Covid-19, health experts maintain that achieving herd immunity quickly will protect at-risk populations, and this includes babies and those with weak immune systems.

Obstacles to rapid vaccination are many, ranging from the political, financial, logistical to the cultural and social, including personal beliefs, just to name some.

Thankfully, vaccine hesitancy, or the phenomenon where people are scared or reluctant to be vaccinated, is not believed to be prevalent here, unlike in some countries where there is a long history of distrust of the medical establishment, despite the far-reaching effect of Covid-19.

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