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The volunteers stuck in a vaccine maze

FRANCIS BECKETT took part in a medical trial for a vaccine that has yet to get approval. He and others have been left in a strange limbo – jabbed, yet not jabbed.

A dystopian-looking vaccine centre at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena. Photo: Charles McQuillan.

In summer 2020, when Covid-19 raged and there was no vaccine, I signed up to be a guinea pig on a clinical trial of a vaccine called Novavax.

My reward is that I’m now trapped. As the world opens up to our fellow-citizens, many of the 15,000 Novavax volunteers can’t go anywhere, and those who do travel constantly trip over Catch-22 obstacles.

Until now, government departments have looked the other way and told us we are the responsibility of some other department. But now the government has at last decided whose responsibility we are. It’s all the European Union’s fault, apparently, and the British government is seriously thinking about punishing the EU by refusing to let them have the data from the tests.

Well, here’s my story. I can’t myself perceive the dark hand of the EU in it.
I received my two Novavax jabs in October and November last year. In January the roll-out of authorised vaccines began, and I asked to be ‘unblinded’ – to be told whether I had had the trial vaccine or a placebo.

It turned out I had had the trial vaccine, and I was advised, by both Novavax and the NHS, to stay in the study. Novavax would apply for authorisation in April, and then it would count as an authorised vaccine. For travel and all practical purposes, I would be treated the same as if I had had the Pfizer or AstraZeneca jabs.

Anyway, the National Institute for Health Research told us: “People taking part in the trial will still be able to receive an approved vaccine without delay when they are called up by the NHS.” Hmmm.

Come April, Novavax said: there’s a hitch (they didn’t tell us what it was) and they’d be applying for authorisation not later than June. Come June, they said September.

The vaccine is safe and effective, apparently – the problem is getting the manufacturing capacity to produce it in sufficient quantities to make it worthwhile. To help with this, Novavax have taken an additional UK manufacturing plant, which (I promise I am not making this up) is in Barnard Castle.

With my son intending to marry in Madrid this year, and keen for me to spend some time in Spain with him, I couldn’t wait until September, even if I believed them. I said I was leaving the study and seeking an authorised vaccine.

I thought that was the end of my troubles. It was just the start.

I managed to get my first jab despite government advice against giving it to me, thanks to my supportive GP, but the day before I was due to get my second jab, a curt text from the NHS told me it had been cancelled as I had already received two jabs.

I had booked to go to Spain, so the next few days were full of stress. My local pharmacist ran the nearest vaccination centre, and he was spooked by conflicting signals from the government.

He agonised, and asked if I could get both my GP and the Novavax researchers to put in writing their view that I should have the vaccine. I got him the required letters, but by then he had received some more guidance, and told me he couldn’t take the risk without referring it upwards. Whomever he referred it to apparently referred it further upwards. For all I know it’s still working its way up.

My GP tried and failed to find anyone else who would give me the jab, and suggested I call the NHS 119 service. They hadn’t heard of this problem and told me to try my GP.

After several frustrating days, I heard that a big new vaccine hub had been opened at the Science Museum.

There, the man with the syringe looked quizzically at my records on his screen, and as I prepared to launch into my prepared spiel, asked me one question: “Left arm or right arm?” I was in and out in less than five minutes.
So now I could travel to Europe like everyone else, couldn’t I? Er, no.

It turns out that the NHS app is only capable of recording two doses of a vaccine, and it will automatically select the first and the last. So in the case of a Novavax volunteer, it records the first Novavax dose and the second AstraZeneca dose. This means that according to the app, I have only had one dose of an authorised vaccine, not two.

Within Britain, it doesn’t matter, because the government has decreed that my Novavax vaccine counts. But the EU does not agree – unsurprisingly, since Novavax is not approved, either here or in the EU.

The Spanish government saved my trip. They announced that unvaccinated Brits could come in, so long as they could show a negative PCR test.

Since then I have also been to France, because I discovered that if I downloaded the information on the NHS app onto the French app, which is called ‘Tous Anti-Covid’, the French app – a brainier one than ours – would notice that the AstraZeneca jab was the second of two. If I have had the second of two AstraZeneca jabs, I must have had the first one.

Now a group of NHS doctors who were on the clinical trial say they have been told they will not be eligible for boosters. We have been told that the government and Novavax are determined to ensure we are not disadvantaged, but we have heard that before.

All this has taken a lot of time, effort and stress, but I was determined to get to Europe. Most Novavax volunteers have had to sit the summer out here, watching friends who had the sense not to volunteer for a clinical trial traveling to Europe, but unable to do so themselves.

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