I first see the flyer for the NYU Langone’s vaccine trial while getting a COVID test at Bellevue Hospital before Thanksgiving. So when I return for a second COVID-19 test a week later, and see a man in a white coat trying to recruit people for the trial, I tell him I am eager to partake. I apparently win him over, and a few days later set up an appointment.

The day of my appointment, I’m ushered into a small doctor’s room on the second floor of Bellevue Hospital, though the trial’s being conducted by NYU Langone Health’s Vaccine Center. After two hours of questions about my medical history, a physical exam, and a pregnancy test, I’ve qualified for AstraZeneca’s United States vaccine trial … and have become a guinea pig for science.

Clinical trials like this one begin with just a small number of participants and grow in size through later phases. In this study, participants are paid and can earn up to $600 for participating over a two year period.

Phase 1 tests for utility, to see that the vaccine is actually working,” Gargi Padki, a clinical resource nurse at NYU Langone, tells me. “Phase 2 is safety and Phase 3 is safety and efficacy.” She’s the one swabbing my nose and giving me a dose of... something. A third of the study’s participants are injected with a saline solution as a placebo.

By the time the immunization receives approval from the FDA, the AstraZeneca formula will have been tested on tens of thousands of volunteers, who are heavily monitored after receiving doses. I, for example, have to log any symptoms in an app once a week for months. I have regular phone call check-ins to talk about any health conditions I experience, and I have several follow up appointments where more blood samples will be taken over the next two years.

A handwritten list of Gwynne Hogan's reactions to the shot she received, including "head feels hot" and "soar throat."

A handwritten list of Gwynne Hogan's reactions to the shot she received.

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A handwritten list of Gwynne Hogan's reactions to the shot she received.
Gwynne Hogan / Gothamist / WNYC

Overall, AstraZeneca needs to recruit 8,000 more people, to reach a goal of 30,000 trial participants.The vaccine center is just halfway towards its goal of enlisting 1,250 people across five sites in New York City -- I’m the 105th person enrolled at Bellevue. They are still actively recruiting participants, according to officials at New York University. Specifically they’re looking for Black and Latinx participants, those over the age of 65, people with certain chronic medical conditions like obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, as well as essential workers who have higher exposure to COVID-19 than the general public.

I am none of the above, but was somehow selected anyway. (As a reporter, I am out and about covering different events and riding public transit, and have a higher likelihood than someone isolating from home to be infected--and that's good from their point of view.)

Recruitment has been quite tough,” said Damian Inlall, a clinical research manager at NYU’s Vaccine Center. There’s a lot of trials happening simultaneously,” he said, adding, “the general sentiment from the public is hesitancy. Of course, any patient wants to take the product that’s the most effective, the most safe.”

Inlall and his colleague Zeeshan Iqbal, a research coordinator at Bellevue Hospital, have popped into the room where I’m getting dosed. Iqbal is the one who found me. Not everyone he tries to coax is as enthusiastic as I was, he said.

“You have to explain all the pros and cons and what we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “People are hesitant, of course. But at the end of the day we do need these trials to get the data for these vaccines to be out.”

“The global goal is to have everyone vaccinated, to sort of eradicate this virus, but in order for that to be fulfilled, we’d need to have multiple vaccines coming from multiple drug companies,” Inlall said. “We have to ensure that all of these vaccines are very effective and very safe.”

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine was an early favorite, and the federal government invested heavily in it, purchasing 300 million doses for $1.2 billion, more doses than it pre-ordered from any of the other five pharmaceutical companies that were included in Operation Warp Speed. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is far cheaper to manufacture and produce than Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID vaccines and doesn’t require being kept in a special freezer, meaning storage and distribution will be far less complicated.

But while Pfizer received an Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last Friday and Moderna is expected to receive it’s approval this week, AstraZeneca has trailed behind.

The New York Times reported earlier this month, the company withheld some key information from federal regulators, like the fact that it had halted clinical trials after one participant developed symptoms of transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. When a second participant developed the same condition, AstraZeneca was slow to provide Food and Drug Administration regulators the information needed to restart the clinical trial, further delaying the U.S. clinical trial. (The researchers have since determined the two cases of transverse myelitis were not likely related to the immunization. One case occurred in a participant who already had multiple sclerosis and a second person who developed those symptoms had received the placebo.)

So far, AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been found to be 70% effective, lower than Pfizer or Moderna’s estimates of approximately 95% efficacy, according to an early analysis published in the Lancet. But a breakdown of those statistics revealed an even more surprising find. When participants received two doses of the vaccine it was 62% effective at preventing COVID-19 symptoms, but when a subset of participants was accidentally given a half dose followed by a full dose, efficacy rose to 90%. But the sample size of that accidental experiment was too small for researchers to make any conclusions about the efficacy of a lower dosage, and it will likely have to be tested in another round of clinical trials.

“A lot of great scientific discoveries are done in error,” Padki, the nurse said.

A few hours after the injection, I’m lethargic, my skin feels sore, I’m hot and cold at the same time, and my temperature is fluctuating. I feel crappy most of the next day, with general fatigue and a slight headache. My arm is sore around where I got the shot, all of which are normal reactions to an actual dose of vaccine and eventually fade away.

Or is that all in my head and I was dosed with a squirt of salt water? At this point, no one knows, except the pharmacist who prepared the dose. Eventually, as COVID vaccines are available to the general public, participants can request to be “unblinded,” meaning a clinician will tell them whether or not they got the vaccine. But for now, I’m a blind guinea pig, due for a booster shot in just under a month.