‘I don’t feel brave’: Mom signs up to be COVID-19 vaccine volunteer

Taking Action

A tiny spot on Stella Sexton’s shoulder marked the site of the first injection of what could be a vaccine for COVID-19.

“This one was actually less painful than a normal flu vaccine,” Sexton told 8News.

The 41-year-old mother of two said she was feeling scared and helpless when the pandemic first hit. So, when Sexton saw her local health system was looking for vaccine volunteers, she knew immediately it was her calling.

“The vaccine I am trying it just goes into your skin, it doesn’t go all way into the muscle,” she explained.

Sexton signed up to be part of a 52-week clinical trial for the first DNA vaccine at The Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She said she wasn’t scared at all.

“I do not feel that they have rushed anything with regards to my safety,” Sexton said.

After a health screening, a COVID-19 test and signing a 22-page consent form, she was ready for the first shot. “I’m very comfortable and confident in how careful these researchers are,” she told 8News.

Researchers say there’s no chance of her getting coronavirus from this vaccine as there’s no live or dead virus in it, just DNA that matches the virus. Dr. Pablo Tebas, an infectious diseases specialist and a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania is leading the Penn trial.

“They give you a little electric shock on top of where the vaccine was injected and that opens the pores in your cells and allows the DNA to enter your skin cells,” explained Sexton.

Sexton says after the first shot, the injection site tingled a bit. She said, “The next day I felt a very minor amount of fatigue.”

After that, Sexton says she felt fine. She’s even had a second booster shot already. If the vaccine works, she’ll develop antibodies. Sexton is one of about 100 brave souls to step up to be part of the Inovio DNA vaccine trial.

“I don’t feel brave but I do feel I am doing my duty because I have the gift of health,” she said.

“They are selfless heroes. They are putting their health on the line to help everybody else,” says Dr. Steven Zeichner. He’s a University of Virginia infectious disease specialists and researcher. He’s currently working at UVA to develop a safe, effective and low-cost vaccine.

“The approach we are actually using is to take bacteria and genetically engineer them,” Zeichner explained. He say they put a protein derived form the COVID-19 virus on the surface of the bacterium. It is then inactivated for use as the vaccine itself.

Zeichner said it’s a less expensive approach than a DNA-based vaccine which requires dedicated factories to produce the vaccine. UVA’s method is about to be tested in animals in a week or two. Still, he says don’t expect a vaccine anytime soon.

“If we have a vaccine in a year I would be overjoyed,” said Zeichner.

Regardless, Dr. Zeichner says it’s good to have multiple researchers in the vaccine race. Sexton now waits to see if the Inovio vaccine is a winner.

“I am a little bit in suspense because I would really love to know if I whether I am making antibodies,” Sexton said.

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