COVID-19 vaccine trial kicks off in Florida, with volunteers getting up to $1,000

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Dr. James Goldenberg shows the secure room where COVID-19 vaccines are stored Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, at the JFK Medical Center in Atlantis. Trials of the drug will begin Tuesday at the clinic. - Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Another major clinical trial is underway in the global race for a COVID-19 vaccine — with researchers this time planning to pay participants hundreds of dollars in Palm Beach County.

The experimental vaccine, called AZD1222, was developed by AstraZeneca in conjunction with the University of Oxford. The drug arrived Monday morning to the campus of the JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, and the first 10 patients for the study will start the process Tuesday morning. The vaccine is one of just five that are in the crucial stage of Phase 3 testing, according to Dr. Larry Bush, lead immunologist on the trial.

The study, conducted by JEM Research Institute, is the latest in a number of trials underway across South Florida.

Moderna, which is conducting the largest U.S. trial, drew attention last month when Vice President Mike Pence arrived at the University of Miami to kick off that first large-scale clinical trial of a potential vaccine. Moderna has four South Florida sites recruiting participants — two in Miami-Dade, one in Broward and one in Palm Beach.

The goal of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca trial is to gauge whether the vaccine is effective while proving safe. People who have not already been infected with COVID-19 would benefit from the preventative effects of the vaccine, said Bush, who is participating in the Oxford University/AstraZeneca trial. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said.

There are just four locations in Florida where AstraZeneca is holding trials, according to Bush.

Trial participants can receive up to $1,000 over the entire period of the study. Each visit will result in $100 compensation and the trial averages nine visits, although some may have one or two fewer or additional visits.

Dr. James Goldenberg said it will depend on a variety of factors such as the exact number of visits.

Phase 3 vaccines have met two criteria in moving forward: They’ve been proven to produce antibodies, and they’ve been checked for safety. The next step is to make sure it can prevent people from getting COVID-19.

Bush said about 1,100 people took part in Phase 2 of testing for this drug. Researchers hope to test about 31,000 people in the U.S., U.K., Brazil and South Africa. About a third of them will receive a placebo.

The doctors who administer the shots will not know whether they’re administering a real shot or a placebo, Bush said. The vaccine does not contain a live COVID-19 virus in it, only the virus’s protein, he said. “You cannot get COVID-19 from this vaccine,” Bush said.

In recent months, public health officials have called the spikes in coronavirus cases in South Florida alarming.

Less than two weeks ago, Florida became the second state to top 500,000 COVID-19 cases. But there have been some hopeful signs lately. On Monday, the state reported its lowest number of new cases in two months. There were 2,678 new cases reported, or the lowest number since June 17.

Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner toured the frigid-cold medical office after having his temperature taken and answering a series of screening questions. He asked questions of the researchers and touted the county’s response to the pandemic.

“Every metric is on the decline,” Kerner told reporters while touring the facility Monday.

Doctors walked the office in lab coats and nurses donned purple scrubs while preparing for the administration of vaccines and placebos the following day.

The building itself is a rented medical office that resembled most doctors’ offices. When participants arrive, most will go straight to observation rooms. With 10 participants scheduled for the first day, the waiting room will offer plenty of space for physical distancing.

The vaccine itself was stored in a locked room marked with biohazard safety posters. Reporters and television news crews were not allowed to photograph or even see the vials of the vaccine. Two rooms across the hall with similar safety notices on the doors would be where the vaccine is mixed prior to being administered.

Researchers are looking for study participants who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, such as elderly people, as well as health care or food workers who interact with the public. Expected side effects of the vaccine include pain or tenderness, redness and swelling at the site of the injection. More generally, patients may expect a fever, chills, muscle aches, fatigue, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

There are many people who won’t eligible to take part. They include: People who are under 18, who have received an experimental vaccine before, have knowingly had COVID-19, are on an immunosuppressant, have an uncontrolled medical condition, have been hospitalized in the last few months or whose medication has changed.

Lisa Marton, 53, signed up to participate. She applied online and was screened by phone.

“They asked a lot of questions,” said Marton, of Boca Raton. “But so did I.”

“I’m a big believer in vaccines,” she said.

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(Sun Sentinel staff writer Cindy Krischer Goodman contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS