Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines has a unique perspective on one of the two COVID-19 vaccines that’s nearing the finish line. Daines was a participant in the vaccine trial for Pfizer’s formulation, which is one of two mRNA-based vaccines taking vaccination science where it hasn’t been before.
Pfizer and Moderna have both announced that their vaccines are 94 to 95 percent effective. Each uses human genes to teach the immune system to recognize the spike protein on the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, but they do it in a way that’s a markedly different process from previous vaccines. There’s no live, attenuated virus or heat-killed virus involved. And that means these vaccines can be made much more rapidly than the old-style vaccinations.
Some researchers believe this new gene-based technology will provide not only an entirely new platform for developing vaccines, but new treatments for cancer and heart disease as well.
Daines said he learned about the Pfizer study from his parents, who live in Bozeman, where Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital was seeking people to participate through their facility in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccination trial.
“They were one of many sites around the country selected for the COVID-19 trial,” Daines told reporters in a media call Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 18.
Both Daines and his wife signed up for the trial, which was a blinded study. That is where half get the vaccine and half a placebo. None of the participants, however, are told which they received. This type of structure helps tell researchers whether a treatment is really better than nothing at all. Otherwise, the psychological benefits — known as the placebo effect — from believing you’ve received a treatment can mask real results, suggesting a treatment is more helpful than it really is.
To qualify as participants, Daines and his wife were first tested for COVID-19 to verify that they did not have the disease. Then they were given their shots, and told to record all their observations about any symptoms or side effects in a journal.
Daines said he is pretty sure he got the vaccine, even though he has not been told that yet. He based that both on his reaction to the shot, which he said was very similar to a flu shot, and the fact that he has subsequently tested positive for the antibodies, despite never having gotten sick.
The shot, he said, did not hurt any more than a flu shot. While the Pfizer dose has to be stored at minus 100 degrees — colder than the Antarctic — it is brought to room temperature prior to actually being injected in an individual.
Daines had mild symptoms after the shot, including soreness in his arm and light chills that resolved themselves by the next day. About 3.7 percent of vaccine recipients also report some temporary fatigue as a side effect, according to data from the company.
Daines’ wife, meanwhile, who was also tested for antibodies, did not get a sore arm, had no chills afterward, and did not test positive for any antibodies. For that reason, they believe she probably only got the placebo.
Daines said he has made research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine a top priority as a senator for Montana, believing that it is the only way things can begin to return to normalcy. Being part of the trial was a way to do a little more to help Montanans see the science up close.
“My goal in all this was to build confidence and trust for Montana and the American people who are wondering if they should take the vaccine,” Daines said. “This is about saving lives. We are seeing that firsthand in Montana. This is about supporting our frontline healthcare heroes. It’s about protecting jobs and the economy. It’s also about American innovation. And it’s about restoring normalcy to our way of life.”
Daines said he trusts Montanans to make the best decision for themselves, and to use common sense and practice personal responsibility.
“We must remain smart and protect the most vulnerable in our community,” Daines said.
Daines does not know for certain how many Pfizer doses will be headed to Montana, but said they are likely to be prioritized to front line healthcare workers, emergency first responders, and the vulnerable.
State officials have said the details on how many doses and where they are going is still being worked out. Montana officials have identified five locations so far with the specialized freezers the Pfizer vaccine will require for storage. Those types of freezers, being so specialized, are generally in larger metro areas. That has led to questions about how the distribution will be handled for rural areas.
Daines told the Sidney Herald he is confident that rural areas will not be forgotten in the process.
“Clearly we will be looking at areas where the greatest needs are,” he said. “The CDC is working with top scientists and local officials in the state and it will have state specifics, thanks to the consultation between the states and the CDC. We are going to make sure that we have those resources particularly in our rural communities that have been very hard hit.”
He also said he believes there will be a well-thought out and executed plan, regardless of what appears to be a contentious transition of power when it comes to the presidency.
“The CDC is driving this,” he said. “Looking at how they laid out the plan, it looks really solid, and it’s not in any way political in nature. It’s focused on who needs it the most, and how to get it into their hands the fastest.”
Both sides of the aisle have reviewed those plans, he added.
Meanwhile, Pfizer itself is working out the logistics in distribution and supply chains and temperature issues. They have begun trial shipments to four states, Daines said, to work on all those issues.
Daines said his participation in the trial will go on for about two years, during which time he will provide blood samples for antibody tests, so the company can gauge the strength of the antibody response over times.
He said he will continue to share his personal experience as a participant in Pfizer’s vaccine trial, so people can make up their own minds.
“We are thankful that so many Montanans decided to participate in these trials,” Daines said. “It helps move the science forward and the sooner we do that the sooner we get a vaccine.”