At the beginning of April, after a month without in-person social contact and with online Trinity slowly looming I remember feeling, above all else, powerless. There was nothing I or anyone else could do to improve the situation the world had somehow found itself in, except stay inside, pretend that Zoom socialising works as a substitute for the real thing, and wait for things to get better. At uni I had found happiness by trying to make every day as sociable as possible – throughout first year, if I wasn’t asleep or mid-essay crisis, I was with people – and for me, good mental health is very much reliant on having structure, so the next few months seemed like my personal version of hell.
So, when I found out that the hospital five minutes down the road from me was looking for volunteers to be a part of the Oxford vaccine trial, I jumped at the chance. Not only was it something to do with the endless hours of nothing stretching out in front of me, it was something to do that made a difference. When filling in the application forms I felt autonomous for the first time in weeks, a tiny but tangible part of the worldwide effort to end the biggest public health crisis in a century. And if the vaccine didn’t work? Well, at least it would have been an excuse to go outside.
After a few weeks without hearing back I assumed that they must not have needed me, but a month or so later I got a call and they asked me to come in for a screening. I was relatively nervous about the appointment – going into a hospital after weeks of staying at home bar the occasional walk seemed too close to COVID for comfort – but by some incredible coincidence I bumped into another Oxford student in the waiting room and making small talk helped to calm me down.
At the screening they asked me about my previous medical history, took my height and weight, did a blood test, and then a pregnancy test (I also had a rather awkward conversation with a male nurse where he asked me why I’d stopped taking the pill during lockdown, and I had to explain that I’m painfully single and live with my parents…), and by the end of it everything seemed fine and my vaccination was scheduled for the next week.
Again, I was nervous; I’ve not been good with needles ever since my Year 8 HPV jab, where the nurse counted slowly down from 10 before injecting me. But this one barely felt like a scratch – it was the side effects I found really hard. When the nurse told me I might have a fever and a sore arm the next day, I was only half-listening, as I’d been told that before every jab I’d had before and always felt fine the next day; but this one was different. I woke up feeling almost delirious and genuinely could not move the upper half of my left arm, it was that stiff. Unluckily the week I was jabbed coincided with a micro-internship I was doing, so for about a day and half I was typing up reports with my right hand and trying my best not to grimace in Zoom meetings with people I’d never met before.
There’s a lot more to participating in the trial than just receiving the injection. I have to take a COVID home test every Monday and send it off to the lab so they can track how I’m doing, which makes me feel immensely privileged given that no-one else apart from healthcare professionals has testing so frequently. Getting the “You have tested negative for coronavirus” text every Tuesday evening is always hugely reassuring.
I also have to do a weekly survey to tell them how many people I’ve been seeing outside of my household, from what distance, and how long for, to check how likely it is that I’ve been exposed to the virus – important for the study, I know, but it feels kind of sad that in a spreadsheet somewhere there’s a tangible record of how dead my social life has been over the last month. And then I have semi-regular blood tests, potentially for up to a year, to check if I have antibodies to the virus and the vaccine is doing its job.
It’s been incredibly exciting to learn recently that in Stage I trials, the vaccine has produced an immune response in participants – while of course the world has its fingers tightly crossed for a vaccine as soon as the science allows, I’ve become weirdly invested in the Oxford one over the others, and will be extremely proud if it’s my university and the vaccine trial I’ve taken part in that helps get the world back to the ‘old normal’. If someone had told me a year ago that in 2020, I’d voluntarily undergo an injection and regular blood tests, I’d have laughed. But even if remaining trials don’t go as everyone is hoping they will, I’m still extremely proud to have taken part.