The first volunteers are already waiting when Rosa G. gets to the lab. She’s worked as a technician on human trials before but never seen people so eager to be injected with an experimental vaccine. She meets the first subject, a young woman in a mauve tank top, in an examination room. She has her sit, then draws a few milliliters of clear fluid from a clear vial.
“Ready?” Rosa asks.
“Yup,” the woman answers.
Rosa jabs the sharp end of the needle into the soft flesh of her tricep and presses the plunger. The woman looks exactly as she did a moment before, but in an instant her body has become something profoundly different: a new front line in the battle between mankind and the novel coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands have died of COVID-19, and more than seven billion immunologically defenseless bodies await like dry chaparral at the height of fire season.
Rosa has dosed the volunteer with an experimental vaccine made up of a mishmash of microscopic particles of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that have been chemically chopped up and rendered harmless, like a pistol run over by a steamroller. Though incapable of causing infection, to the immune system they are antigens: foreign particles that are unfamiliar and presumed dangerous. In response to their presence, the body learns to create antibodies that will circulate and latch onto any identical antigens they may encounter in the future. In swarming an antigen, antibodies prevent it from carrying out infection, and they also mark it for destruction by hunter-killer cells.
The idea behind this kind of vaccine, called “whole killed” or “inactivated,” has been successfully used many times in the past, from the Salk polio vaccine to annual flu shots. But will this formulation stimulate the body’s immune defenses enough? Or, conversely, will it trigger dangerous adverse reactions, like the 1976 swine flu vaccine that left 450 with a crippling neurological disease? Continue reading GQ: What It Will Take to Get to a Vaccine