Chicago to be a test site for COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial

CHICAGO — A COVID-19 vaccine test site is coming to Chicago.

The city will be a test site for a clinical trial local researchers say is moving at warp speed.

You could call Dr Richard Novak a vaccine veteran. The University of Illinois at Chicago professor and head of infectious diseases has led dozens of clinical trials during his 25-year career. This one, he says, is different.

“I’m excited to be part of this study for the reason that it’s so important for getting our economy and our population back up and going,” he said. “And trying to get us back to some semblance of normalcy – or what we remember as normal. instead of this new normal we’re living now.”

The Phase Three trial is designed to test efficacy. Earlier studies of the product made by biotech company Moderna showed it’s safe. The vaccine is RNA-based, which means it introduces a specific protein to the body that then sparks the immune system to produce antibodies against the foreign substance.

“There’s absolutely no way someone could get COVID-19 from getting the vaccine,” Novak said. “They’re really just getting this one protein, which is actually the protein COVID-19 virus uses to get inside cells. We want the human body to make an immune response, make antibodies to that protein. And that antibody will then block that protein from binding to the cells when the virus does get into the body.”

Moderna plans to enroll 30,000 people across the country with 1,000 participants in Chicago. A significant portion of the test group will be made up of individuals 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions like diabetes and heart disease — groups hit particularly hard by the virus.

“We do want to know if the vaccine prevents infection, but we also want to know if it prevents disease,” Novak said. “Do people who get the vaccine who get sick have a milder case of disease than people who otherwise didn’t get the vaccine?”

The double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial is set to begin July 9, a timeframe Dr Anthony Fauci shared with WGN News just last week.

“By the beginning of July, we’re going to go into Phase Three trial for efficacy,” he said. “That is overwhelmingly the fastest ever – from the time any new infection was discovered to the time you actually went into a large vaccine trial.”

Participants will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: A study group which will receive the vaccine and a control group, which will receive a placebo. Neither the researchers nor the participants will know who gets the vaccine.

“There are also a lot of serious long-term complications in people who survive who have been hospitalized,” Novak said. “Some people develop serious lung disease or people get strokes or heart attacks related to the disease. So if we can prevent some of those complications and certainly reduce the death rate by giving a vaccine, that would be a win.”

As the clinical trial gets underway across the country, so is production of the experimental vaccine – a strategy designed to save precious time if another wave of COVID-19 hits the country.

“It’s a huge investment and normally we don’t do that until we know the vaccine is effective,” Novak said. “So they’re going to stockpile these vaccines in the hope that they work. I sure hope it works.”

There are four other vaccine candidates scheduled to move to Phase Three testing this summer. At least one other will be tested here in Chicago. Clinical trial participants will be monitored for about two years but the study could be halted sooner if it’s determined the product is in fact effective or if it is clearly not going to work.

Anyone interested in volunteering to participate in the vaccine trial should contact UIC researchers at 312-413-5897 or email ProjectWishDOM@uic.edu.