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As a highly competitive triathlete, Victoria Anderson has pushed herself to impressive finishes at national and world age-group championships. She’s earned a spot on Team USA. She’s also a nuclear engineer and synchronized swim coach with two Ironmans under her belt. But despite her long list of achievements, she believes her single greatest contribution to the sports world may be her participation in the latest COVID-19 vaccine trial.
When the pandemic arrived, Anderson found herself in the same position as everyone else — training but without any event to train for. “I struggled a bit in the beginning, but for the most part, I simply kept going,” she said. “My husband and I scaled back the intensity, as we would in any off-season, but regular training continued to be a part of our daily lives — except for the period when I couldn’t access a pool.”
Living in Washington, D.C., she’s minutes from the National Institute of Health (NIH), as well as several research hospitals. When it became clear a vaccine might be the world’s brightest hope for bringing an end to the devastation the COVID pandemic is wreaking, she didn’t hesitate to throw her name on a list of volunteers.
After answering a series of questions and passing the initial screening, she found out she was chosen in early fall. When people ask why she enrolled, she tells them, “The first answer is because, like everybody, I want us all to go back to a more normal life. The second is that I was in a position to do so, since I have reliable transportation and the ability to take time off work. I’m also healthy enough to qualify.”
Anderson has been participating in Astra Zeneca’s AZD1222 vaccine trial, which is slightly behind Pfizer and Moderna in the race for regulatory approval. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been in the news recently as they move forward with actual implementation. The Astra Zeneca vaccine, according to a November press release, still has clinical trials currently underway in the US, Japan, Russia, South Africa, Kenya, and Latin America, with planned trials in other European and Asian countries. In total, the company expects to enroll up to 60,000 participants globally.
What’s it like to take part in one of the most highly anticipated vaccine development trials in history? Aside from mounds of paperwork, pretty easy, said Anderson. At her first appointment, she went through a complete physical, signed “a massive amount” of consent forms, and gave several vials of blood.
A physician injected her with either the vaccine or saline as part of the control group (neither the researchers nor she knows which), drew more blood, and sent her on her way. Every Monday, she logs into an app on her phone to answer a short series of questions about her health the prior week and whether or not she’s showing any COVID-19 symptoms.
Twenty-seven days after the first shot, she went back for a second. She’ll receive a check-up three weeks after the second dose and then continue to give blood for the next 23 months. Eventually, she’ll find out if she received the vaccine or the placebo.
Many people, including athletes, are worried the fast approval process means the vaccine might not be safe. Prior to the COVID-19 vaccine process, the fastest a vaccine has ever come to market is four years.
However, Anderson said she felt very little in the way of reservations. She’s confident the fast timeline doesn’t mean companies are cutting corners. Operation Warp Speed simply opens up access to the private and public sector’s available resources, she said, including lab space, volunteers, and physicians to vaccine manufacturers. Add that to billions of dollars in funding from the government, and vaccine candidates are achieving what was once thought impossible.
With each dose, she said, she experienced some soreness at the injection site, as well as a slightly elevated temperature. She took two days off training but missed nothing more. Anderson wants all athletes to know the process is safe and the inconvenience minor, especially when compared to getting the virus and potentially be sidelined for months, if not experiencing worse outcomes.
In fact, we’re now seeing that some athletes and healthy individuals who contract COVID-19 experience only mild to moderate symptoms initially, but may continue to have trouble three to five months later. They’re considered “long-haulers” and returning to pre-COVID fitness levels may be challenging. According to the CDC, scientists have learned “that many organs besides the lungs are affected by COVID-19 and there are many ways the infection can affect someone’s health.”
In particular, doctors are worried about how the virus interacts with the heart, potentially causing inflammation and damage (myocarditis). For athletes who are used to pushing themselves beyond physical discomfort, it’s important to pay close attention to signs you’re not ready to return to your regular training routine, to take it slowly in returning to exercise, and to consult your doctor if symptoms continue.
Erik Bustillo, Co-Vice President of the International Society of Sports Nutrition and an avid athlete (including racing in triathlons), came down with COVID in late June. It took weeks for him to feel well enough to tackle more than a simple walk. He said, “I can’t say it loud enough. Start back slow. Crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. It’s not worth the risk of long-term damage.”
Bustillo felt some of the same fears as everyone else regarding the fast vaccine development process, but since learning more about it, he’s confident the best minds in the world dropped what they were doing to find a solution. Anderson also wants athletes to know her clinical trial experience was thorough, detailed, and comprehensive.
“Get the vaccine as soon as you can,” she said. “Do you want to race or not? You may miss a few days of training, but it’s better than getting the virus.” Bustillo would agree.