Jen Haller, operations manager for the Seattle startup Attunely, is the first person ever to receive a vaccine for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. On Monday, Haller was the first volunteer to receive a shot in the Phase 1 trial of a vaccine to help contain the pandemic that has upended normal life around the globe. She's one of 45 people not currently infected with the virus who are participating in an initial study to determine whether the vaccine is safe and effective. It's an especially important study since -- given the speed and severity of the outbreak -- the experimental vaccine already has been approved for human trials even though trials on animals have not completely run their course.  

The vaccine, made by pharmaceutical company Moderna and administered at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle, was developed and approved for human testing in only 65 days from when the Chinese government posted the virus's genetic sequence on the internet and researchers began working with it. That's record time, according to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, M.D. "Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2 [AKA Covid-19] is an urgent public health priority," he said in a statement. "This Phase 1 study, launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal."

One reason for the quick turnaround is that, unlike traditional vaccines, this vaccine uses a fragment of the virus's messenger RNA (mRNA) to activate the body's immune system. Using mRNA makes vaccines cheaper and faster to produce, and safer too, since they do not require the use of infectious elements. Although Washington was the first state to see coronavirus infections, and has the highest death toll so far among U.S. states, the fact that the clinical trial is happening there is just a coincidence. Researchers had planned the trials at Kaiser Permanente before the coronavirus first appeared in the U.S. Participants in this first trial will receive two shots, 28 days apart, and be monitored for a year, first to see if they remain in good health and also to see whether they begin producing antibodies to the coronavirus. If they're still healthy after several weeks, Moderna may ask the Food and Drug Administration to approve a second, larger trial. 

Startup steps up.

Heller told GeekWire she was "doing great" after her first shot, and she says she is happy to be able to contribute to solving the current crisis. "Jen Haller is a stand-up citizen in a good state of health," says Scott Ferris, Attunely's founder. When she told him she'd applied and been accepted to the trial, she warned him that it would require some time out of the office and that it might draw a lot of attention. "I said, 'That's great! Go for it.'" 

Her participation has indeed brought a lot of attention, including an appearance on MSNBC, he adds. Attunely is an early-stage startup with fewer than 20 employees. It uses machine learning to help companies improve debt collection with better outcomes and an improved consumer experience. Ferris says he is involved in the local startup ecosystem, and has had interest from other founders in supporting employees with time off or other needs who want to take part in the vaccine trials.

Even if the trials are successful, vaccines are not expected to be available to the public for a year. In the meantime, Kaiser is still looking for healthy Seattle residents between the ages of 18 and 55 who are interested in participating in the research. It comes with compensation of up to $1,100. And -- who knows? -- maybe a TV appearance as well.

Published on: Mar 19, 2020
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