As one of hundreds of volunteers involved in the University of Oxford’s coronavirus vaccine trials, Dan McAteer said he had a few nerves on the day of receiving the jab itself. However, he recalled an unexpected incident from the night before.
“They were well meaning, but a relative shared an online post of what was obviously a piece of fake news claiming that one of the trial participants had died,” said the 23-year-old student.
“It didn’t give me pause to stop in the least, but there was a sort of weird dynamic because it was on Facebook, which had played a role in my recruitment when I saw an original callout for volunteers. In fact it emphasised why the vaccine was so important. You get a sense society is sort of fraying.”
Two weeks have now passed and the fact that a vaccine for the global pandemic could be pulsing through his body (half the study participants get the Covid-19 jab and half get a control one) has largely faded to the back of his mind.
Like others, he will soon have the first of monthly blood tests, but in the meantime has been taking his temperature and logging in online to record any symptoms.
“It’s all very well organised and you’re given emergency contact details if needed, but by the second week you have basically just become a data point in someone else’s spreadsheet,” he said.
If that sounds like a modest assessment of his role in something that could save millions of lives and allow the world to return to some semblance of normality, then he is equally self-effacing about his reasons for taking part.
“I felt guilty, to be honest – aware of the privileges of youth, health, and being able to stay at home,” said McAteer, a postgraduate studying the history of science, medicine and technology at St Edmund Hall, one of the university’s colleges.
“There are thousands of people out there fighting for breath, skewed dramatically by class and race. But there are also thousands of carers, nurses and doctors collapsing with exhaustion at the end of another mega-shift every day. So I thought: my brain is quite useless, maybe my body can help.”
That admiration for healthcare workers also comes through in his invocation of staff he met on the day when the vaccine was administered, comparing them to the generation mustered for the war effort in 1939.
He recalls feeling flattered after arriving on his bicycle when a nurse also participating in the trial mistook him for a young doctor. “No, I’m one the guinea pigs,” he replied at the time.
“For an ancient university, they’ve really kicked into gear at speed. You can tell that things have been put together with urgency, but also that they know what they’re doing. There’s a particular kind of doctor who exudes a gentle, studious authority as they work. There seem to be a fair few of them around. For a small group of medics and scientists, this is like an engineer corps throwing a bridge together in a warzone: fast and methodical.”
McAteer also spoke of medical students who had been enlisted to help across the NHS, encountering one who helped him with some paperwork: “I was struck by how his university life had been turned upside down even more than mine. He should have been on a rotation or cramming for exams, but had instead been deployed to Covid work for the foreseeable future.”
Inside a small room – “just like any other in a doctor’s surgery” – he lay down and was given the injection by a nurse who, like him, didn’t know if it was the vaccine or the control, a well established meningitis vaccine.
“She was one of those really experienced people, who have amazing skill but are also really soothing, one of those people who can just keep conversation going.”
A little over an hour later, after undergoing temperature and other checks, he was on his way home, where he experienced some mild symptoms that evening in line with some of the expected common side effects of vaccines.
“I had a fever, some shivering and a headache the evening of my jab, but this all cleared up within 24 hours. Nothing to fear, in my personal experience.”
Life switched back to a lockdown routine at the house he shares with his girlfriend, in which the need to meet looming academic deadlines have kept boredom at bay.
Like many people, their news consumption has rocketed – although interest in the evening Downing Street briefings has fallen – and he likened the national picture to “a bit of an Oxford psychodrama” involving Chris Whitty, Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and other alumni.
McAteer has also closely followed coverage of the vaccine trial: “It’s clear that the university has been very upbeat in their communications and Prof Sarah Gilbert, who is leading the project, even publicly floated the idea of being ready by September.”
It’s a degree of optimism that he doesn’t quite share: “September, or October even, feels like a very optimistic scenario.” But he very much wants the vaccine to succeed.
Above all, however, there’s an overarching admiration for those involved in the trial and wider efforts to tackle Covid-19: “We’re talking about people who are getting on with it with calm professionalism and compassion. Some snidely call the NHS a national religion. But I think it’s a pretty good one to have.”