BY JULIE ASHER
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – When Father John Fields received an Aug. 28 email from the University of Pennsylvania asking him if he wanted to participate in the third and final phase of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine trial, he agreed immediately.
"I did not hesitate. For me, it was a go. I just hoped I would be accepted," he said in a Nov. 17 email to Catholic News Service.
"It would be a great opportunity to fight this pesky virus that suddenly appeared and wreaked havoc throughout the world, bringing death and disrupting every aspect of our lives," said Father Fields, an archpriest of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, who is director of communication for the archeparchy.
"Several years ago, I anointed one of my former parishioners from Frackville, Pennsylvania, who was dying of cancer at the hospital of the University Pennsylvania," he recalled. "He knew his cancer was terminal but signed up for an experimental cancer research study at Penn. Even to this day, I think of his courage and bravery while he was at death's doorstep."
On Nov. 16, Moderna said preliminary data from the phase three trial shows its coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19. It's the second vaccine in the United States to have "a stunningly high success rate," as CNN described it. The first is a vaccine by Pfizer, which announced Nov. 11 its vaccine is 95% effective.
Moderna developed its vaccine in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The analysis of the study showed 95 confirmed COVID-19 infections among the trial's 30,000 participants: 90 confirmed cases in the placebo group versus five cases observed in the group that received its two-dose vaccine.
The study team that reached out to Father Fields was looking for volunteers who were middle age to early 70s, "since that was deemed the higher risk group for the COVID-19 virus," said the priest, who is 70.
He was accepted into the trial at the University of Pennsylvania and was the first volunteer in the study at Penn, receiving his first injection Aug. 31. He was tested for COVID-19 the same day with a nasal swab – the result was negative – and had blood drawn for the study.
It was a blind study — about 50% of the participants received the experimental vaccine and the remaining 50% a placebo of saline solution, he said. The participants and the Penn Care team were not informed who received the vaccine and who received the placebo. However, the injections are coded for the purposes of the study.
"During the first week, each day I had to report my temperature and any symptoms — fatigue, nausea, injection site pain, arm swelling, chills or fever, headaches. I had none," he said. On Oct. 1, he got his second injection, more blood draw and another COVID-19 nasal swab test — which was negative. Again, he felt no symptoms.
On Oct. 26, he returned for a follow-up evaluation and to get more blood drawn. He'll continue to be evaluated for a period of 25 months; his next evaluation is already scheduled for March 2021.
He said as a volunteer in the Moderna study group at the University of Pennsylvania, he found the news of the effectiveness of the company's vaccine "very encouraging and am pleased that I had the opportunity to participate."
"I think of the researchers, who in only several months, as part of Operation Warp Speed, collectively used their knowledge and wisdom from Almighty God to achieve this medical milestone," Father Fields told CNS.
"And I am reminded that alone my involvement is insignificant, but combined with the almost 30,000 other volunteers throughout the United States in the Moderna study," he said, "collectively we may have helped to defeat this deadly virus and prevent millions of deaths throughout the world. For this, I am grateful to God, for this opportunity."