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'Important impact': Why mom enrolled her 22-month-old in COVID-19 vaccine trial

"Seeing all those people say ‘Thank you for doing this’ makes me feel like we’re doing something really important."
/ Source: TODAY

In December 2019, Jessica Moreno gave birth to a baby boy. As she and her husband were settling into life with an infant, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like so many, Moreno heard emerging news with some panic.

“My husband and I were both just really scared. We had this new baby who’s really vulnerable and doesn’t have a fully functioning immune system,” Moreno, a 36-year-old clinical pharmacist from suburban Detroit, told TODAY Parents. “So if he did encounter this virus, he wouldn’t really be able to fight it off."

For Jessica Moreno, enrolling her son in a Moderna vaccine clinical trial seemed like a way for her family to help efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy Jessica Moreno

Moreno asked TODAY not to use her son’s name to protect his privacy.

To keep her son, now 22 months old, safe, the family hasn’t put him in daycare and avoids going out with him unless it’s necessary.

“Our whole motivation for all this continuing to be locked down is that we are scared,” she said. “He’s had all his other vaccines and we know he has a functioning immune system and that’s wonderful. And yet, we’re still really quite scared of him being exposed without any protection.”

About six months ago, Moreno saw that there was a local site conducting clinical trials on the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for children from 6-months to 2-years-old and she signed her son up for it — not knowing if he’d be selected to participate. Then she forgot about it. Last week, she received a call from a mystery number with a Detroit area code and randomly answered.

“She said, ‘Hi, I’m the clinical trial coordinator for Henry Ford in the Moderna study,’” Moreno recalled. “At that point I got tunnel vision and sort of blacked out because I was so excited.”

This call means that for 14 months her son would be part of the double blind study, a type of research where neither the participants or the investigators know who receives the vaccine and who receives a placebo. He’ll receive two shots, four weeks apart and he will undergo some blood tests every few months to measure his antibody response. If any COVID-19 vaccine earns FDA approval for use in 6 months to 2 years age range, researchers will unblind the study so they will learn if he had the vaccine or placebo. If he has received the placebo, he’ll be able to then receive the vaccine.

“I’m a firm believer in ethical and equitable clinical research being conducted and if we didn’t have kids in these kinds of trials then we wouldn’t have treatments for kids — period,” Moreno said.

“I didn’t make this decision on my own. But weighing the risks and benefits at this point, everything I have seen has led me to believe that any potential risks that this vaccine could pose to my son pales in comparison to whatever risk that he would get if he were actually to get COVID.”

Enrolling her son in the trial also felt like a way for her family to bolster efforts dedicated to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It would help us to feel really good about contributing to science and to society,” she said. “Also, I’d be really thrilled to explain to him once he understands a little bit more that he got to participate in this really Earth-changing scientific breakthrough.”

Moreno’s son has experience with shots and recently received his flu vaccine. He’s getting a little better at receiving jabs.

“This time he was so cute because he started to do the whimpering thing … but then it was over before he had a chance to really start crying," Moreno said. 'And we were like, ‘All done’ and he’s crying and going ‘All done.’”

Having her son participate in the clinical trial helped Moreno feel empowered after feeling helpless throughout the pandemic.

“I teared up a lot when I posted that on Twitter,” she said. “Seeing all those people say ‘Thank you for doing this’ makes me feel like we’re doing something really important and it really fills me with a lot of emotion just knowing this could have a very important impact. He’ll be one of the (thousands) of kids that are going to be in this study, but that’s on behalf of the millions of children in that 6 month to 2 year age group that could benefit.”