KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When COVID-19 started to impact the Kansas City, Missouri, area, sisters Ellie and Heather were nervous. Ellie even admitted being scared to leave her house.
During a late-night dive into an internet rabbit hole about the novel coronavirus, Heather discovered the Center for Pharmaceutical Research in Kansas City was conducting clinical trials on potential COVID-19 vaccines.
“I think I called the next day and I qualified,” explained Heather. The Center for Pharmaceutical Research asked us not to use the patients’ last names.
By the end of April, Heather received an injection for a potential vaccine from the pharmaceutical company Inovio.
Heather told her sisters about the experience and four days later, Ellie had her first appointment. She said her pastor had just challenged congregants to step up during these trying times when she got the text from her sister, like divine intervention.
“I do believe in that,” Ellie said.
The sisters, who grew up in Independence, Missouri, said they’ve always been close and it’s been great having each other to lean on during the clinical trial.
Inovio announced 94 percent of the participants in phase one of its clinical trial, which the sisters are a part of, showed signs of success.
“I think they’re going feel very good to tell their grandchildren, assuming this all works out, that they were very much involved with the solution to the first pandemic we’ve had in over 100 years,” said Doctor John Ervin, founder of the Center for Pharmaceutical Research.
The U.S. government selected Inovio and several other vaccines for Operation Warp Speed in an effort to create a vaccine by January 2021.
Ervin said time is of the essence to protect public health.
“That’s our hope and prayer, that we get it going fast,” he said. “So long as they’ve proven to be safe, which so far that’s what we’ve seen, get it going. It usually takes years to get something like this to market, we just need to get this as quickly as we can.”
What makes Inovio’s potential vaccine different than a traditional vaccine is it uses DNA instead of a live or weakened version of the virus. So the injections the sisters received did not include any part of the coronavirus. They received a genetic sequence to basically trick their cells into creating immunity.
Ervin said regulatory agencies have never approved this type of vaccine for human use, but he’s optimistic this could be the first. He said DNA vaccines have many advantages, particularly that clinics don’t need to refrigerate them, so they can go to all corners of the world whether there is electricity or not.
“I would just be thrilled. It would be so fantastic,” Heather said when asked about whether the vaccine receives approval.
Her daughter, who lives with her, came down with COVID-19. Heather’s tests have all come back negative, making her wonder if the vaccine had anything to do with it.
Nonetheless, both sisters are not pushing their luck. They wear masks, stay home, avoid crowds and follow all the public health guidelines.
Neither one of them has shown any side effects from the injection. They will continue to get blood work done as part of the trial until April 2021 but will receive no more injections.
Ellie is a middle school history teacher and can’t help but think she’s making history now.
“The thought of that is super exciting for me. I’m hopeful, hopeful that it works,” she said.
Her older sister has found peace in the trial.
“For me, it really helped calm me down a little bit,” she admitted. “I felt like I was actively doing something. It was helpful for me to be able to do something instead of just worry.”