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Tracing the journey of UAE’s COVID-19 vaccine trial volunteers

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Abu Dhabi: Ever since the world’s first trials of an inactivated vaccine against the coronavirus were launched in Abu Dhabi, thousands of residents have been signing up to help the test the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

What are these trials for?

The vaccine itself has been developed by Chinese pharmaceutical giant, Sinopharm China National Biotec Group, and has been proven to generate antibodies in all of the people who received two shots 28 days apart in Phase I and Phase II.

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In the UAE, the trials, dubbed 4Humanity, are being sponsored by Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence and cloud computing firm, Group 42, and are being supervised by the Abu Dhabi health regulator, the Department of Health (DoH), and the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention. Abu Dhabi’s public health provider, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha), is running the trials and handling all medical aspects and patient information.

People of all nationalities aged between 18 and 60 years, and living in the UAE, are eligible to participate in the trials, as long as they meet other inclusion criteria. For instance, they cannot have suffered from COVID-19, be immunocompromised, or be suffering from other chronic conditions.

Strong response

In the first three weeks or so, trials were open only in Abu Dhabi emirate, with more than 10,000 people reportedly volunteering. In addition to a dedicated registration website, a walk-in clinic and vaccination centre was set up at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec).

On Wednesday, the Seha opened its first vaccine trial centre outside Abu Dhabi, located at the Al Qarayen Health Centre in Sharjah.

Apart from the more than 5,000 people who signed up for the trials in the first 24 hours after its launch on July 16, a lot of people also volunteered over the recent Eid break.

Gulf News spoke to a cross-section of people, and will follow the journey of three volunteers as they undergo the 42-day trial process.

Hussa Mohammad Salem Al Mansoori, 49, Emirati IT professional

Why I am doing it: I’ve been very excited about the vaccine trials ever since they were announced last month, and noted excitedly how quickly the first 5,000 volunteers came forward. So as soon as the sign-up website was launched, I registered myself.

Hussa Mohammad Salem Al Mansoori

Hussa Mohammad Salem Al Mansoori

Any vaccine that is developed will be for the good of humanity as whole, and I want to be a part of the process.

Registration: On August 1, I was visiting family in the Al Dhafra town of Liwa when I got a message asking me to come in for the assessment and vaccine. I might have stayed longer, but I decided to drive back home to the capital so I could go for the tests the next day itself.

I drove to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec) in the morning, reaching at just about midday. I didn’t exactly know where to go, but there were a lot of people on-site to guide me.

Receiving the vaccine — Day 0: I was directed to the parking from Gate 5, and then reached the ground floor, where the vaccine trials are being organised.

All volunteers were given a green band showing they had tested negative for COVID-19.
Image Credit: Supplied

At the very beginning, I was asked if I had been tested for COVID-19 recently. Employed in a semi-government company, we are actually tested every two weeks. So when I informed the volunteers about this, they gave me a green band. I believe people who haven’t recently been tested receive a red band.

Then I was directed to the registration counter, where I had to present my ID. It took just a few minutes to register my personal information, and after, I was shown to a room where a nurse did some preliminary assessment. She took my blood pressure, and body temperature, and I was given a urine test to determine if I was pregnant. She also took a blood sample and a nasal swab.

Then a doctor came in for a medical assessment. I was asked about my overall health, and because the doctor did not find anything concerning, I was directed to the vaccine administration room.

A nurse gave me a shot on my upper arm. It wasn’t uncomfortable; it just felt like a regular injection. I was then presented with a new thermometer so that I could regularly monitor my blood temperature, a box of N95 masks, and a booklet. The nurse explained to me how I could fill in any symptoms I noticed, and also how to contact the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha) if I didn’t feel well.

She also gave me Dh300 worth of shopping vouchers, which I did not expect!

Then I was directed to an observation room, where I waited for about 30 minutes. A nurse came in every 10 minutes to check on me, including my body temperature and blood pressure.

When they were satisfied that I was doing well, I was allowed to go home.

The next day — Day 1: I received an SMS the very next day telling me that I should expect a call for teleconsultation. The person on the line asked me in detail how I was feeling, and when I had nothing to report, I was told I could expect my next call on August 5.

Today — Day 3: I am still feeling very much like myself, and have nothing much to report. So the call this morning was a routine check. I hope it will continue in the same manner, and I am excited to witness my body producing antibodies against COVID-19 after the second vaccine shot.

The verdict: The entire process thus far has been very simple, and no real trouble apart from the time I’ve had to commit. I’ve been told that I have to be in town during this entire process, which isn’t really too hard at the moment. Because this is Phase III, I know that this vaccine has proved successful and safe in the first two stages of trials, so I don’t expect that I will face any difficulty hereon. For now, I feel proud to be part of this historic process.

Dr Mohammed Elnaggar, 46, Egyptian, specialist urologist at Burjeel Royal Hospital in Al Ain

Why I am doing it: The entire world is facing one of the worst catastrophes because of this pandemic. People are losing loved ones and facing loss and often, constant suffering.

If I can help alleviate this by participating in a vaccine trial, I would be happy.

Dr Mohammed Elnaggar

Dr Mohammed Elnaggar

Besides, I face constant risk of contracting COVID-19 because of my work on the front lines. Participating in a vaccine trial shouldn’t significantly alter this risk, I believe. So when we received an email from our employer encouraging us to volunteer, I decided to go ahead with it.

Registration: Because I live in Al Ain, the trials meant I had to drive down to Abu Dhabi’s walk-in clinic at the Adnec. So I set off after work on August 3, reaching the clinic at 7PM.

All vaccine trial volunteers were handed an information booklet.
Image Credit: Supplied

Finding parking on the second floor was easy, and I walked down to the clinic.

Receiving the vaccine — Day 0: A volunteer asked me if I had been test for COVID-19 over the past two weeks. This is a requirement for all health care professionals, and so a green band was affixed to my wrist.

At a registration counter, I presented my Emirates ID, and waited till my information was logged. Then I was given an informational booklet and a consent form.

Directed to a room, a nurse came in to do some preliminary temperature and blood pressure checks, then a general practitioner assessed me medically. He asked if I had any chronic illnesses or if I was on any kind of medication. Confirming that I was in good health, they let me proceed to the next step.

I had to first sign the consent form, which also specified that any treatment that I required during the vaccine trial process would be completely covered.

Then a nurse took my blood to draw up a comprehensive metabolic panel, and administered a nasal swab test.

I then headed to another room to receive the vaccine shot. It took a while for the vaccine to be brought from the pharmacy. The shot was given in the deltoid muscle in the upper arm, and I was then told how to record any symptoms that I noticed from then on. I was also given a thermometer as a gift.

In the observation room, I waited for about half an hour while a nurse checked on me from time to time.

When there was no change or reaction, the medical bracelet was removed and I was allowed to head home.

The next day — Day 1: I received a call the very next day. The health professional asked if I had been feeling feverish or fatigued, or if I had developed a cough. I hadn’t but I was a little tired from the drive to Abu Dhabi.

What next: I have my next scheduled teleconsultation on August 9. I will also have to go down for my second shot on August 24, and have already been booked. So I will finish work on the day and head to Abu Dhabi.

The verdict: I have to agree it is probably a commitment to participate in the trials. You have to record symptoms, and be available on the day of the shot and for the regular teleconsultations. But it is more than eight months since the outbreak began, so it is really time for us to put an end to it with a vaccine.

My family in Egypt, including my five daughters aged one to 20 years, were a bit concerned when I first told them I was signing up for these trials. But now they’re just proud of me.

Dr Sayyed Munir Pasha, 45, Indian, specialist radiologist at LLH Hospital, Abu Dhabi

Why I am doing it: The quicker a vaccine is available against COVID-19, the quicker we can get back to normal, and provide relief to thousands of people across the globe. And the more people that volunteer that volunteer for these trials, the quicker the developers can create a vaccine.

I believe there is a good chance that this vaccine will work. There have already been two successful trials, after all.

Dr Sayyed Munir Pasha

Dr Sayyed Munir Pasha

So when I heard about the need for more volunteers, I decided to go for it.

Registration: I went down to Adnec on Saturday, August 1, at about 6pm.

I was given a green band that showed I have recently been tested for COVID-19, then I headed to the registration counters. This was very easy, and I only had to provide my Emirates ID and mobile number. I was also given a vaccine diary at this stage.

In a nearby room, I was then assessed medically. A nurse took my blood pressure and temperature, and when these were normal, she took a blood sample and a nasal swab to test for the coronavirus.

I was then directed to a vaccination room. Everything was routine, and I received a shot on my upper arm.

At the observation room, I had to wait for about 30 minutes. The nurses came in a few times to check on my temperature, blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels. They also explained how to fill out the vaccine diary with any symptoms I noticed, and how to contact Seha if I faced any breathing difficulties or diarrhoea, for instance. In addition, I was given some snacks.

After the required time had passed, I came home.

Volunteers received gift vouchers and masks.
Image Credit: Supplied

The next day — Day 1: I faced a little bit of swelling and tenderness in around the injection site, but had no other symptoms. I reported this during the teleconsultation, but the discomfort later went away on its own.

What next: I have been asked to take my vaccine diary back on the eighth day.

The verdict: The entire process was very smooth and easy, and there were a lot of people to assist throughout the process.

My family were initially worried when I told them I would be volunteering for the trials. But now, seeing that I am doing fine, they are comfortable with the idea.

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