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I’ve already been injected with a COVID vaccine. This is why I’m cheering for the Novavax underdog

Novavax headquarter in Rockville, Maryland

AFP via Getty Images

The first question that came to my friends’ minds was whether I’d really thought about the possible dangers. Two of them, more focused on worldly matters, asked at least whether I was being paid.

That was a month ago, a few days before I went to London’s Royal Free Hospital to have my first shot as a volunteer in the phase 3 trial of a coronavirus vaccine. Now the same friends seem to wonder whether I have chosen the right horse, but they don’t venture to ask me for fear of hurting my feelings.

The vaccine I’m trying is developed by Novavax
a U.S. biotech company, and it was the second one to be tested in a late stage trial in the U.K., after the one produced by the collaboration of Oxford University and AstraZeneca
A third one, by Johnson & Johnson
will soon start late stage trials in the UK as well.

But all the news in recent weeks has been on the three vaccines that had reached 90% efficacy or higher in their late-stage trial. No news from Novavax, which is natural because its wide-scale trial started later than the others. So the candidate I have come to consider as “my” vaccine, looks like it’s running fourth at best…

In reality this is all silly. The answers to all my friends’ concerns are all negative – no, I never considered it was risky, and no, of course, I’m not getting paid. I just received my second shot a few days ago. And as all experts would tell you, it does make very much sense for Novavax and the dozens of other vaccine candidates to continue with the trials – even if three other vaccines have already shown results, something that was hoped for but not expected a few months ago when the world was confronted with the calamity of the coronavirus first wave.

It’s not that I want to cheer my team against all odds, as supporters stick with their home football squad for better and for worse. But ever since I got a phone call asking me to confirm the decision I’d made in early summer to join the register of vaccine volunteers for the NHS, Britain’s health service, I have of course become interested, not only in the vaccine but in the fate of the U.S. biotech that is developing it.

So I know that Novavax is based in Maryland, and that I should – silly me – have bought its shares in January instead of receiving its vaccine in October: the stock is up 2200% since the beginning of the year (no, I didn’t throw an extra 0 here. Put differently, the share price has been multiplied by 23). No underdog there at least. And that’s for a company that is yet to put an actual vaccine on the market.

Pierre Briancon

The overall reason for the lack of anxiety or “fear of danger,” as my friends would put it, about being inoculated with an unknown substance, is that you’re being accompanied most of the way by the NHS doctors and nurses who manage the trial. Everything is explained, options are offered (leave whenever you feel like it without having to give a reason) test kits are distributed in case symptoms occur, and an app is there to keep a daily diary if they do.

Then there’s a monthly “vaccine registry” newsletter, the latest of which insisted that it does make sense to keep researching and trying: Divya Chadha Manek, the head of clinical trials of the UK vaccine taskforce, explained to me (and a few thousands others) first that we will need many vaccines both globally and in the UK. Second, and this may be even more important, not all vaccines will be found appropriate for all people. “Basically, we can’t put all our eggs in one basket,” Divya wrote.

Besides, this is still, very literally, a trial and error process. Three vaccines that seem to have proven their efficacy – from Pfizer
the U.S. pharma group, biotech Moderna
and AstraZeneca/Oxford University. But questions started being raised about both the process and implementation of AstraZeneca’s phase 3 trial just a few days after it published its preliminary results. This could mean at the very least that the road to an effective vaccine may be longer and bumpier than hoped for in the optimism of the last two weeks.

So I still root for Novavax, which will take another few months to tell us about the trial result, and just extended its pool of volunteers in the UK from 10,000 to 15,000. Even though I may not even be vaccinated at all: Half of us were injected with a placebo, an inactive saline water solution looking like a vaccine dose that will have no effect on our immune system. This is a “double-blind” trial where even the doctors and nurses following us do not know whether we got the vaccine or not.

So I’m left wondering, trying not to become a hypochondriac who takes the smallest signs of unease for possible symptoms.  Is my left arm hurting after the second shot? Is that a serious headache? And why did I just cough?

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