In August, Jeffrey Edwards M.D. ’21 joined the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Immunization. During the trial, he received two injections three weeks apart, and his only side effect was a mild headache after the second dose.
The experience reaffirmed Edwards’ trust in the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine.
“As a medical student who’s not yet able to practice, I felt trapped,” he said. “I wanted to contribute more to my fellow healthcare workers and the residents that I’ve worked with. I think that was a big motivating factor for me as well — trying to contribute to something in which I felt helpless.”
Edwards joined the vaccine trial in order to combat this sense of helplessness — to contribute to treating COVID-19 in the best way he saw possible. Initially in the placebo arm of the Pfizer trial, he was transferred to the experimental group once the vaccine received emergency use authorization because of his status as a healthcare worker.
Now, as the race for the COVID-19 vaccine progresses, the Stanford community turns its attention to the initial administrations and consequences of these vaccines. Optimistic, cautious, helpless and relieved: students’ reactions vary widely.
On Dec. 11, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use, allowing for an initial shipment of 2.9 million doses to health workers across the U.S. On Friday, the FDA greenlit the Moderna vaccine, advancing the federal government’s plans to deliver 20 million doses by the end of the month.
Already, Stanford Medicine’s rollout of the vaccine has met with widespread pushback. Only seven out of its first 5,000 vaccinations went to front-line residents and fellows, prompting protests at Stanford Hospital on Friday.
Edwards remains excited for the scientific accomplishments of both vaccines. The use of COVID-19’s genetic sequence in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines is highly promising for the future of epidemiology, according to Edwards.
The new use of mRNA “could actually have very wide implications beyond COVID,” he said, particularly for malaria and tuberculosis. “I believe that’s super exciting for science, even independent of what it means right now, in the current context of a global pandemic.”
Stanford medical student Natasha Abadilla ’14 M.D. ’21, who is applying to child neurology residency, expressed her relief and gratitude toward the successful vaccine candidates and noted their potential to alleviate the burden of health professionals. In addition to the constant risk of exposure to COVID-19 from her patients, Abadilla said that she often felt frustrated watching health care workers and their families struggle with the pandemic while others refused to even recognize the severity of the virus.
To “leave work and see people not wearing masks or wearing them improperly, or talk about COVID not being real and a left-wing ploy,” Abadilla said, can be “very, very exhausting.”
Francesca Kim ’22, a junior majoring in biomedical computation and member of Cardinal Free Clinics, said that she believed that a successful vaccine could alleviate students’ pandemic-related mental health challenges. She is especially worried that out-of-state students’ difficulties in accessing on-campus Counseling and Psychological Services have exacerbated their struggles to adapt to isolation and remote learning.
For the sake of the students’ mental health, Kim hopes that the vaccines will eventually reinstate a sense of normalcy: “Having a routine and being able to see people on the daily is really important for me, and a lot of other people too,” she said. She added that she sees a need for a holistic transitioning plan when pandemic restrictions loosen and the university begins to fully re-open.
Despite their optimism, all three students cited mistrust of the vaccines as a major obstacle to their overall successes. While anti-vaccine sentiment had been increasing before the pandemic, the unprecedented efforts to develop COVID-19 vaccines have resulted in misinformation.
Abadilla said there is a need to dispel false rumors within the general population. First, she said, mistrustful citizens must be open to listening to verified scientific information. Then, the media, social media platforms and informed citizens must disperse easy-to-read facts on the vaccination process without ostracizing the wary and misinformed, according to Abadilla.
Edwards has considered solutions to Black Americans’ generational mistrust of large pharmaceutical companies and healthcare systems. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, historical and current disparities in the medical treatment and health services delivery to communities of color has resulted in 49% of African Americans distrusting the COVID-19 vaccine as well. As a Black person, Edwards said he hopes to combat mistrust while ensuring the safety of disadvantaged populations — and concluded that participating in the Pfizer clinical trial would be the best method.
However, Edwards recognizes that challenges remain in moving forward.
“It will take a good amount of time to truly unroot” stress caused by the history of institutionalized racism in the U.S., he said. “But for me, I felt like this was one thing that I could do as an individual that might help people beyond myself.”
Abadilla cautioned against the University and students’ possible perception of a vaccine as a complete solution to the pandemic. People’s cooperation with social distancing, monitoring symptoms and rigorous mask-wearing would be crucial until health officials deemed it safe enough to relax restrictions, according to Abadilla.
Edwards proposed that universities require student vaccination after health officials confirm the widespread safety and success of the vaccines. He cited the importance of protecting staff, faculty and extended family members of students, as well as setting a vaccine-friendly precedent for the public.
“Universities, whether they recognize it or not, are always leaders in these spaces,” Edwards said. “They protect and they advocate for public health measures, and I think that sends a strong message that can be universal, even beyond the confines of a specific student population.”
Contact Yewon Chang at ychang23 ‘at’ lawrenceville.org