Coronavirus vaccine test opens as U.S. volunteer gets 1st shot

SEATTLE (AP) — U.S. researchers gave the first shot to the first person in a test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine Monday -- leading off a worldwide hunt for protection even as the pandemic surges.

With a careful jab in a healthy volunteer’s arm, scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle begin an anxiously awaited first-stage study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed in record time after the new virus exploded from China and fanned across the globe.

“We’re team coronavirus now,” Kaiser Permanente study leader Dr. Lisa Jackson said on the eve of the experiment. “Everyone wants to do what they can in this emergency.”

The Associated Press observed as the study’s first participant, an operations manager at a small tech company, received the injection inside an exam room. Three others were next in line for a test that will ultimately give 45 volunteers two doses, a month apart.

“We all feel so helpless. This is an amazing opportunity for me to do something,” Jennifer Haller, 43, of Seattle, said as she awaited the shot.

She's the mother of two teenagers and “they think it's cool” that she's taking part in the study.

After the injection, she left the exam room with a big smile: “I'm feeling great."

Monday’s milestone marked just the beginning of a series of studies in people needed to prove whether the shots are safe and could work. Even if the research goes well, a vaccine wouldn’t be available for widespread use for 12 to 18 months, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Still, finding a vaccine “is an urgent public health priority,” Fauci said in a statement Monday. The new study, “launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal.”

This vaccine candidate, code-named mRNA-1273, was developed by the NIH and Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc. There’s no chance participants could get infected from the shots because they don’t contain the coronavirus itself.

It’s not the only potential vaccine in the pipeline. Dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine against COVID-19. Another candidate, made by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, is expected to begin its own safety study -- in the U.S., China and South Korea -- next month.

The Seattle experiment got underway days after the World Health Organization declared the new virus outbreak a pandemic because of its rapid global spread, infecting more than 169,000 people and killing more than 6,500.

COVID-19 has upended the world’s social and economic fabric since China first identified the virus in January, with regions shuttering schools and businesses, restricting travel, canceling entertainment and sporting events, and encouraging people to stay away from each other.

Starting what scientists call a first-in-humans study is a momentous occasion for scientists, but Jackson described her team’s mood as “subdued.” They’ve been working round-the-clock readying the research in a part of the U.S. struck early and hard by the virus.

Still, “going from not even knowing that this virus was out there ... to have any vaccine” in testing in about two months is unprecedented, Jackson told The AP.

Some of the study’s carefully chosen healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 55, will get higher dosages than others to test how strong the inoculations should be. Scientists will check for any side effects and draw blood samples to test if the vaccine is revving up the immune system, looking for encouraging clues like the NIH earlier found in vaccinated mice.

“We don’t know whether this vaccine will induce an immune response, or whether it will be safe. That’s why we’re doing a trial,” Jackson stressed. “It’s not at the stage where it would be possible or prudent to give it to the general population.”

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Last week, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19 after contracting it in Australia, where Hanks was filming a movie. 

"We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches," the Oscar-winning actor shared on Instagram. "Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too. To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the Coronavirus, and were found to be positive."

"Well, now. What to do next? The Medical Officials have protocols that must be followed. We Hanks’ will be tested observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires. Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?"

Idris Elba took to Twitter on Monday morning to announce that he, too, contracted the virus. The actor was at the same conference in Webley as Sophie Trudeau, who also tested positive. 

He shared with his fans:

"This morning I tested positive for Covid 19. I feel ok, I have no symptoms so far but have been isolated since I found out about my possible exposure to the virus. Stay home people and be pragmatic. I will keep you updated on how I’m doing. No panic.

Sophie Gregorie Trudeau, the wife of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, was announced to have tested positive for the virus last week. 

Her symptoms developed after attending a conference in Britain in early March. The prime minister is not showing symptoms and will not be tested, but will remain under quarantine.

Kristofer Hivju, best known for his role as Tormund on "Game of Thrones," took to Instagram on Monday to reveal he was self quarantining with his family in Norway.  

"We are in good health,” he wrote. “I only have mild symptoms of a cold. There are people at higher risk for who this virus might be a devastating diagnosis, so I urge all of you to be extremely careful; wash your hands, keep 1,5 meters distance from others, go in quarantine; just do everything you can to stop the virus from spreading.

Olga Kurylenko, who starred in the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace,” announced this weekend that she has contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. 

“I’ve actually been ill for almost a week now,” she wrote on Instagram. “Fever and fatigue are my main symptoms. Take care of yourself and do take this seriously!”

Donavan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, both players on the Utah Jazz basketball team, have tested positive for the virus. Gobert was the first NBA player to test positive, which prompted the suspension of the rest of the basketball season. 
Callum Hudson-Odoi, a forward for the Chelsea football team, tested positive for the virus, in addition to Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta. Following the announcement, all professional soccer games in England have been postponed. 
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Most of the vaccine research underway globally targets a protein aptly named “spike” that studs the surface of the new coronavirus and lets it invade human cells. Block that protein and people won’t get infected.

Researchers at the NIH copied the section of the virus’ genetic code that contains the instructions for cells to create the spike protein. Moderna encased that “messenger RNA” into a vaccine.

The idea: The body will become a mini-factory, producing some harmless spike protein. When the immune system spots the foreign protein, it will make antibodies to attack -- and be primed to react quickly if the person later encounters the real virus.

That’s a much faster way of producing a vaccine than the traditional approach of growing virus in the lab and preparing shots from either killed or weakened versions of it.

But because vaccines are given to millions of healthy people, it takes time to test them in large enough numbers to spot an uncommon side effect, cautioned Dr. Nelson Michael of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which is developing a different vaccine candidate.

“The science can go very quickly but, first, do no harm, right?” he told reporters last week.

The Seattle research institute is part of a government network of centers that test all kinds of vaccines, and was chosen for the coronavirus vaccine study before COVID-19 began spreading widely in Washington state.

Kaiser Permanente screened dozens of people, looking for those who have no chronic health problems and aren’t currently sick. Researchers aren’t checking whether would-be volunteers already had a mild case of COVID-19 before deciding if they’re eligible. If some did, scientists will be able to tell by the number of antibodies in their pre-vaccination blood test and account for that, Jackson said. Participants will be paid $100 for each clinic visit in the study.

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Neergaard reported from Washington, D.C.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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