Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, a participant in the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine study, learned on Wednesday that she was among those who had received an actual dose – not a placebo – on the very first day. (Courtesy photo)

In a randomized, double-blind study that uses a placebo as a control group, you don’t know from the onset whether you received the substance under scrutiny or an innocuous, salt-water shot that looks like it could be the real thing.

It’s either all or nothing – 50/50.

You’re protected from the ravages of COVID-19, or you are not. The Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine study was being tested at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. On Dec. 14, I became one of 180 test subjects at that location. 

There were plenty of Caucasian test subjects, both men and women. But African Americans were needed to test the viability of the vaccine in a population that was much more vulnerable to COVID-19.

I was called in for my six-month office visit. A nasal swab was taken, blood was drawn and questions were asked about any symptoms, either mild or severe, I may have suffered since the last office visit. 

This visit had far greater significance than all the others. I received a call. I didn’t recognize the number, and I let it go to voicemail.

The message was a pleasant, friendly voice telling me that she is calling to schedule an appointment for me to “take the vaccine.”

It is Friday afternoon, just before 5 p.m. I called back, but no one picked up. 

I called back Monday, anxious to verify that I was making an appointment to take the vaccine. Yes, that is the purpose of the appointment, I was told. 

Naturally, I assumed I had received the placebo, not the actual vaccine back in December.

So, Wednesday (March 24) when I got to the office, I found out everyone had been told to come in for the vaccine. But no one really knows who actually received the vaccine. 

We were making appointments for the “unmasking,” or the “un-blinding” of test subjects.

A double-blind study means that when the shot is administered, neither the subject nor researcher knows whether it is a placebo or the vaccine.

I am given more forms to sign –  releases allowing the study doctor to contact my primary physician for more data on me.

My temperature was checked and someone on staff left the examination room to see if I am in the vaccine or placebo group. 

It doesn’t take long. In four minutes, my file is accessed, the door opens and I am told on the very first day, I received the vaccine.

It was not quite the dramatic moment I was hoping for. I was prepared to take the vaccine because I reasoned that more releases to sign must surely mean I was getting the real thing today.

But no, I have been protected from the virus all along.

When the Pfizer and Moderna substances were being rolled out and trucked to every region of the nation, I had already been vaccinated.

However, I still got a needle in my arm – all those vials of blood needed for study.

My next visit is scheduled for Dec. 14, 2021 – my first anniversary in the Ensemble study. My twice-a-week symptom checks will continue. A phone app asks one question – whether or not I am experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19. 

This is a two-year study and research will continue. That is important if scientists are to continue improving the J&J vaccine.

OK, so let’s talk about it. You know, Catholic priests have been in the news asking those who are receiving the vaccine to reject the J&J because “it was made with the cell lines of aborted fetuses.”

What? That never came up while the research staff was explaining what would happen during the study. The cell lines of aborted fetuses??? (I didn’t even know what a cell line was. Aborted fetuses, I did know.)

It was troubling, to say the least. The issue was in the back of my mind as I was having my temperature taken, but I never asked about it. I guess, I didn’t really know how to start that conversation.

Instead, I returned home from the clinic and did a little research. And by “little research,” I mean I “Googled.”

So, here’s the deal. According to Dr. Aleena Banerji, a member of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, fetal cell lines are not the same thing as fetal tissue. Fetal cell lines are cells that are grown in a laboratory setting.

However, according to Banerji, these cell lines were originally taken from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s. The harvested cells have been grown in the laboratory to create fetal cell lines.

This medical technology is being used in a wide variety of medical therapies for decades, Banerji said.

I am satisfied that the tissue of aborted fetuses is not being used to produce the J&J vax. I don’t understand all of the bio-research and ethics issues. But what I do understand is enough to offer some measure of peace.


TSD ARCHIVES

African Americans sought for COVID-19 vaccine trial at St. Jude

My inside-out look at a vaccine trial

Me, J&J and a village call for vaccination