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OU graduate, students tout results, safety of COVID-19 vaccine

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Carlos Blanco, CEO of the Lynn Health Science Institute and OU graduate.

Editor’s note: The two student participants in the clinical trial requested partial anonymity due to medical privacy concerns. Their identities are known to The Daily.

An OU graduate at the head of the Lynn Health Science Institute — an organization currently conducting COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials in Oklahoma — and students participating in the trial said the Pfizer vaccine is performing as expected with few negative effects.

Carlos Blanco, a 1990 OU graduate and member of the Price College of Business Healthcare Advisory Board, is the CEO of the Lynn Institute, which has been conducting clinical trials of both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines since late summer. Though the institute has conducted over 1,200 clinical trials since its founding, Blanco said these vaccine trials were notable.

“This one was really different, because both Moderna and Pfizer selected only the sites that they knew could absolutely recruit the huge number of patients that they wanted, and the Lynn Institute has a long history of being able to recruit a large number of patients in a very short amount of time,” Blanco said. “So we were selected, we were the only site selected in Oklahoma to conduct the modern trials and the Norman site was, I think, one of two to be selected in Oklahoma to do the Pfizer trial.”

Blanco said the Norman site was selected not only due to being a population center, but because of the “significant amount of (demographic) diversity” university towns offer for collecting data on vaccines’ performance.

The Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy rate of roughly 95 percent, Blanco said, is one of the most impressive data points collected from the various phases of trials the vaccine has undergone, ranking it among some of the most successful vaccines historically.

“When you consider that our most successful vaccines ever — like the polio vaccine, which is about 99 percent effective, and the measles vaccine, which is about 96 percent effective — when you consider that we have a vaccine for COVID-19 that is that efficacious (it) is really significant,” Blanco said, “and goes a long way (or) should go a long way towards ending the pandemic — not eradicating COVID-19, but certainly bringing about an end to the pandemic.”

Gabe, an OU communications sophomore, said his experience with the clinical trial has been positive and the vaccine dosage he has received resulted in only minor symptoms.

“After the first (injection), really, the only deal was that my arm was sore — and that was mostly from the shot itself,” Gabe said. “But after the second shot, it did have some symptoms that popped up. Like, I had a headache. I was drowsy, a little dizzy, but that's all to be expected from a vaccine like this.”

Harry, a sociology sophomore who also participated in the trial, said his experience was similar.

“The first time, I was sort of sore, second time, I was a little fatigued that night but you know, just going to bed (and getting) a good night’s sleep took care of that on its own,” Harry said. “But I haven’t really experienced any symptoms or anything.”

Gabe said participants in the trial are required to fill out a weekly diary on a mobile app, primarily addressing if they are feeling symptoms of COVID-19. Aside from the two doses of vaccine they received, Gabe said participants will have blood drawn periodically over the next “couple of years” to continue to collect data on the vaccine’s effects.

While the vaccine will be a major help to hampering how effectively the virus can spread, Blanco emphasized that vaccinated individuals could potentially still spread COVID-19 to others and achieving a high rate of vaccination will be the only way to ensure a return to normalcy.

“We don't have we don't have a definitive answer to that question, but there is speculation that yes, unless you have achieved 100 percent immunity from the virus that you could still spread it,” Blanco said. “If we can reach 80 to 85 percent of the population, if we can reach that goal or (set) that number as a goal, that will do a tremendous amount of being able to go back to normal, and you might say within less than a year.”

Although some reports of six participants deaths taking place in a 44,000 participant Pfizer vaccine trial circulated social media, a Reuters fact check and FDA documents stated “the deaths were not deemed to be related to the vaccine.” 

Blanco said although the COVID-19 vaccine was produced quickly, this was partially due to the availability of technology to attack viruses similar to coronavirus and the efforts of vaccine developers to marshal their resources and prioritize development.

“Was the process a very quick process compared to the normal process? Yes, but what folks need to understand is that the mRNA technology is not brand new, that technology has been around for several years, probably close to a decade, but we've never really had the right virus, that matches that delivery system quite like COVID does,” Blanco said. “We were very lucky in the fact that COVID-19 has a spike protein that it used to attach to cells.”

Blanco also said the Lynn Institute does “about 90 trials” annually, and that “95 percent of those” were paused to prioritize development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Gabe urged people to trust in the vaccine due to his positive experience with the clinical trial version.

“Throughout all of history, we've had pandemics before, we've had viruses, and vaccines truly are one of the greatest inventions of humankind ever. Being skeptical about them, doubting them, or just saying that they're not good for you, based on a different random claim, I think there really should be no room for that in our society,” Gabe said. “If we don't trust them, then we're just ignoring a great piece of human technology that's gonna stop us from getting sick and potentially dying.”

Blanco said the Lynn Institute has another clinical trial for COVID-19 vaccines beginning the week of Dec. 14. Participants can sign up through the Lynn Institute’s website or by calling their screening center at (405) 447-8839, and will receive monetary compensation “well over $1,000” for time and travel to the Oklahoma City location. 

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