I was vaccinated in a clinical trial. But officially, my COVID-19 vaccine doesn't "count"

Despite being inoculated with arguably the best vaccine, I'm being punished for participating in a scientific trial

Published June 30, 2021 4:00PM (EDT)

Ripping vaccination record card (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ripping vaccination record card (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I'm immunized with arguably the best COVID-19 vaccine on Earth. But according to nation-states and official records, I'm "unvaccinated,"  limiting my travel and social options, and leaving me with no proven, safe, vaccine alternatives.

In December 2020, I volunteered for the phase III, blind study of Novavax's coronavirus vaccine. So-called blind studies randomly assign participants to an experimental, vaccine group, or a control, placebo group. This method eliminates bias and enables scientists to ascertain a medicine's effectiveness.

In March, I became eligible for one of the three approved coronavirus vaccines in the United States — Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — so I asked to be "unblinded," told if I'd previously received the Novavax vaccine or a placebo. I learned I'd been jabbed with the real thing; if I had been part of the placebo, I would have planned to sign up for another shot as quickly as a possible due to my job. I'm a middle-aged middle-school teacher working in a conservative county with no mask requirements, where the daily COVID-19 test positivity rate once peaked at 36%.

As a result of being "unblinded," I had to exit the study.

I am completely at ease knowing the two-shot, Novavax vaccine is coursing through my veins. Results from the phase III study demonstrated more than 90% efficacy against the coronavirus with few side effects. Some scientists even believe Novavax is the best vaccine among COVID-19 vaccines.

The problem is Novavax's vaccine has not yet been approved under the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Emergency Use Authorization. Due to production delays, the company says it might not seek emergency approval until the end of September. Because there's already a plentiful supply of vaccines domestically, it's possible the FDA could instead ask Novavax to apply for a full license, which would take several additional months.

Meanwhile, because I was part of a scientific trial, I have no way of "proving" to authorities that I'm vaccinated, even though Novavax is highly effective. As an experimental drug, it just doesn't count.

I'm already experiencing repercussions.

In April, a friend invited me to Iceland for a summer vacation. Tourists face no entry restrictions if they provide vaccine documentation; otherwise, guests must be quarantined. Iceland doesn't recognize Novavax as a valid vaccine, so I had to turn down the trip.

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Numerous countries mandate quarantines for unvaccinated guests, which often is not feasible for travelers with limited time.

Maybe, taking a cruise is a possibility. Nope. Several cruise lines require proof of vaccination as well.

It's not just travel being impacted. An increasing number of venues, work places, and universities are also asking for proof.

I've done my fair share of complaining about COVID-19. I decided to become a human guinea pig to be part of the solution. Now, I feel like I'm being penalized, even though I put my life at risk for science.

Friends have suggested I get an approved COVID-19 inoculation in order to earn my vaccine card. I've certainly thought about it.

Studies suggest mixing two different vaccines might actually enhance one's defense against the coronavirus, but more research is needed. I'm not ready to take such a gamble for a piece of paper.

Still, there could be an upside to the glacial pace of Novavax's authorization process.

Having lived in Africa, I believe the Novavax immunization, if viable, offers one of the most suitable options for developing countries, often lacking infrastructure and specialized equipment. Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which must be transported and stored at temperatures near or well-below zero degrees Fahrenheit — a logistical burden for any nation — Novavax only requires basic refrigeration, as is the case with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine.

That could mean the difference between millions of people in impoverished countries — especially remote areas — being inoculated or going without. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of vaccines globally are wasted, "usually attributable to cold chain and stock management problems."

With the vaccine glut in the United States, it's likely Novavax will be shipped overseas to nations most in need of easily-managed inoculations.

If I had to do it all over again, I still would have volunteered for the Novavax trial. Scientists need people to roll up their sleeves to test the shots.

Indeed, I'm grateful to be protected against COVID-19. I just wish I had some way to prove I'm immunized.

By Mark Dickinson

Mark Dickinson is an international teacher who has taught on three continents and now finds himself back in the U.S. Before beginning his career in the classroom 19 years ago, he worked for almost a decade as both a television and newspaper reporter. When not at school, he wanders the globe, having visited more than 70 countries.

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