Being a human guinea pig: What it's like taking part in the Coronavirus vaccine trials

When I told my family that I’d signed up to volunteer for the human trials of a new Covid-19 vaccine, the first thing my brother said was: “You know this is how the zombie apocalypse starts, right?”

The plot twist, he added, would be that it wasn’t the disease itself which brings about World War Z, but the attempts to find a cure.

So that was a reassuring thought to send me into my screening appointment on Monday. (In fairness, he has also volunteered to take me down should I develop a sudden craving for brains, so there’s probably very little risk to the wider public.)

Once signed in, I learned a little more about the experimental inoculation being trialled.

It’s being led by the University of Oxford, but with centres across the country - including Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, Southampton and Liverpool, among others - recruiting up to 10,260 volunteers.

The vaccine is called ChAdOx1 nCov-19. It’s based on a weakened version of a virus which causes the common cold in chimpanzees, called an adenovirus, which has been genetically modified so it can’t replicate in humans.

The researchers have then added a spike protein - part of what gives the Coronavirus its name - in the hope that the body will develop an immune response to this which will help protect people against future exposure.

Then there’s the control group. Roughly half of those who sign up and get a jab won’t receive ChAdOx1 nCov-19 at all, but a meningitis vaccine.

The trial is being run by the University of Oxford.

I signed up after hearing about the trials via a friend, who had shared an article from the Nottingham Post.

The study was looking for people between 18 and 55 who were otherwise healthy, who weren’t planning to get pregnant within the next year, and who were key workers - ie who will, as a fact of their jobs, be out in communities and are therefore at higher risk of exposure.

The more I read, the more I knew I had to do it. I ticked all the boxes. Aside from being a little nervous, there was no reason why I shouldn’t do it - and I’ve never considered being nervous of something a good enough reason not to plough on and do it anyway. It seemed like a good thing to do, and I couldn’t rest on my laurels and let others shoulder all the burden.

At the screening, I had to undergo a physical examination, as well as give a urine sample (to ensure I’m not already pregnant) and have blood tests. These would look for any blood abnormalities, as well as antibodies; anybody who has already had Covid-19, for example, might already have a level of immunity which would render a vaccination pointless, so that would exclude volunteers from being able to take part.

They also ensured all potential participants understood the risks involved. There are a few of the usual side effects to be aware of - temperature, discomfort at the injection site, etc - as well as a base warning that it’s still very new, meaning there could be side effects they don’t know about yet.

This includes the risk of going into anaphylactic shock due to an unexpected allergic reaction; not to worry, though, those administering the vaccine are all trained in how to revive someone in that situation.


It took three days to get the results of my blood test back, and yesterday evening I got the call confirming I was eligible (ie I didn’t have any antibodies already, nor did I have anything concerning in my bloods, which was a relief in itself).

The jab itself took place this morning.

University of Oxford of Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group. Credit: University of Oxford/PA Wire

I’ve been assigned to a group which will (if we're not in the control group) receive approximately double the dose of ChAdOx1 nCov-19 than other groups; this will help them test what level of dosage will prove most effective.

The injection itself was about as pleasant as being poked in the arm with a sharp needle ever is, but managed to avoid anaphylactic shock, so can’t complain too much.

I have to take paracetamol for the first 24 hours, and keep an e-diary for the first week detailing any and all symptoms and physiological oddities I might experience.

This is because they’re not just testing for efficacy, they also have to make sure it’s safe, of course.

The study will last for a year, during which time I’ll have weekly Covid tests and regular blood tests to measure any exposure to the virus and my antibody response.

Of course, there’ll be nothing to report if I’m in the control group, and it may be that the vaccine doesn’t provide any protection at all even if I'm not.

But that won’t mean it’s wasted time - it’s still a very important bit of work going on.

As with anything, it’s only by doing the tests that we’ll know whether it works or not.

And I did come out to a rather sweet message from my brother, who - after sending a zombie gif, obviously - said he was proud of me.

“You’re trying to make the world a better place,” he said.

That’s all I - and my 10,259 fellow guinea pigs - can hope for.