ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — While researching stocks in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic to figure out if it was a good time to buy into Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company, John Hoff saw a news article about a Pfizer experimental coronavirus vaccine study.
Hoff, who grew up near Forada, Minn., and is a 1985 Alexandria, Minn., graduate, became less interested in the stocks and wanted to know more about whether he could participate in the study. He felt a need to help and found out what he needed to do to become involved in the study.
As a sergeant in the National Guard in Midwest City, Okla., Hoff thought maybe the National Guard would do something, that maybe his unit might be called to help with testing or help out during the pandemic somehow, some way.
“But I wasn’t doing as much as I wanted to do to help our nation,” Hoff said. “Meanwhile, my younger sister, Mary, works at a nursing home in Douglas County (Minnesota), and she’s on the front lines of this fight every day. She’s my hero. I’m a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and I’m in a National Guard unit that could get called up at any time, but it’s my little sister working in a nursing home who is on the front lines of this fight.”
That was frustrating for Hoff, who said he wanted to do something to get in the fight, which is why he signed up to be what he calls a “lab rat.”
He found out the company doing the study was called Lynn Institute and that they were just a few miles away in Oklahoma. He filled out an online form to become a volunteer and about a week later was contacted by the study coordinator.
During a couple of visits to the facility, Hoff said he took selfies of himself filling out forms and sitting in the waiting room because he wanted to document the moment because, “I felt like I was participating in history.”
After filling out forms and answering lots of questions about his medical history, Hoff had to have a medical exam and his blood drawn for lots of lab work. He had to sign several consent forms throughout the whole process, he said.
Hoff explained that the study is a double blind study, which means that there is a 50-50 chance he will get the experimental coronavirus vaccine. He could also be getting just a shot of nothing, but he doesn’t know and will not be told.
The people who receive nothing, or a placebo shot, are what he called the “normal controls.”
Comparing the rate of the normal controls who get COVID-19 versus those who actually receive the vaccine will help determine the effectiveness of the vaccine, he said.
So far, Hoff has received two shots 28 days apart. He has also had to get tested for COVID-19 twice throughout the process, which he said having the swab up his nose was way worse than actually getting the shots.
Now that he has received two shots and been tested, he won’t have to go into the facility for several months. Instead, once a week he fills out an online form by way of an app on his phone. He has to report whether or not he has any symptoms or if he has contracted COVID-19. If he were to get the disease, there is a process for him to provide a fluid sample so that it could be scientifically confirmed as part of the study. He has a kit that he carries with him to collect the fluid sample.
And because he is taking part in the study, he was issued a card to show any medical provider he may see during the study that explains all the particulars of being a part of the medical experiment.
In addition, he cannot give blood during this time because what he has in his body, if indeed it is the vaccine, is unique and experimental.
“The most important part of the study is done,” he said, noting also that the last time his blood was drawn, it was also checked for antibodies. “At this point, the study is pretty passive and I just need to fill out my online form once a week. We are monitored long term, but most of the important stuff is already done.”
The study will last more than a year. Hoff said he receives $120 for each office visit and $5 per week to fill out the online form. He said it will work out to be about $2,000 total.
A part of history
Hoff said he has long been fascinated by epidemics as part of a broader interest in history. As a child, he learned about some of his Norwegian ancestors who perished during a huge outbreak of diphtheria that occurred in Otter Tail County.
He’s also read about ebola, the Spanish flu epidemic and the bubonic plague. And when he was in grade school, AIDS first emerged and he has seen how that has played out over his lifetime.
“So even when COVID-19 was just a problem in Wuhan, China, I was reading everything I could,” Hoff said. “I was telling all my friends this was going to be a huge problem.”
Being a part of the experimental vaccine study for Hoff is a way for him to feel like he is doing his part.
“I just want to help the world develop a vaccine by doing my small part. I’m honored to be part of something this big, something that’s part of the history of human civilization and the endless battle against disease,” Hoff said. “It’s like a little adventure. While not the same kind of adventure as traveling to exotic lands, it’s still kind of an adventure.”
This is not the first time Hoff has participated in a medical study. When he lived in Seattle, he was part of and was paid for taking part in a number of studies, including one called Chronic Idiopathic Prostatitis Normal Control Study.
“The idea of taking something experimental, it doesn’t bother me. Actually, I find it kind of fun and exciting. So, I’m perfect to be a lab rat,” he said. “Somebody has to step up and make sure this vaccine is safe and effective. Even if the lead vaccine ultimately does not turn out to be the one developed by Pfizer, well, somebody had to step up to help make that determination.”
Hoff also said others can do their part, too. He believes that wearing masks are important, as well as washing your hands, taking your temperature, being careful and not slacking off.
“We’re all in this together,” he said.