Abu Dhabi vaccine trial: appeal for more diversity in volunteers as 7,000 sign up

Officials are looking for more nationalities and a greater gender balance

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, July 16, 2020.   
  Press Conference of the groundbreaking Phase III clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine in Abu Dhabi at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.
--  Dr. Jamal Al Kaabi, Acting Undersecretary Department of Health, Abu Dhabi.
Victor Besa  / The National
Section: NA
Reporter:  Shireena Al Nowais

Related: Step-by-step guide to having a vaccine approved

Abu Dhabi's vaccine trial has appealed for more women volunteers and a greater mix of nationalities as researchers seek to find the key to protecting millions against the coronavirus.

Almost 7,000 people have signed up for the programme, developed by a partnership between the UAE and China.

Chinese drug maker Sinopharm, Abu Dhabi's health department and the AI company Group 42 have begun a Phase-3 trial, which involves large numbers of human patients.

Dr Jamal Al Kaabi, acting undersecretary of Department of Health, said 70 per cent of volunteers so far were Emirati and the majority were men.

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We already started targeting all the different nationalities through our marketing campaigns

“We already started targeting all the different nationalities through our marketing campaigns," he said.

"Right now, I see 30 per cent of different nationalities. They are feeling why this is really important for everyone, not just UAE nationals."

Dr Al Kaabi was the second person to sign up for the vaccine trial after Sheikh Abdullah Al Hamed, chairman of the health department.

He said he expected 15,000 people would take part in the trial, which requires large numbers of people from all backgrounds and ethnicities to ensure consistency.

“By us starting this trial, we are giving the message that this vaccine trial is safe and the rest is up to the public," he said.

Two injections and a diary of side effects

Taking part in the trial requires a volunteer to receive two injections into the arm and to keep a diary of any side-effects or symptoms over the course of months.

The injection they receive is an inactivated or 'killed' version of the coronavirus

If effective, it will prompt the body into generating antibodies to fight off the virus. About 160 vaccines of various kinds are in various stages of development worldwide, but most will never reach the production phase.

Dr Al Kaabi encouraged people to get in touch with trial organisers and ask any questions they had.

He said volunteers might experience side-effects, such as a low-level fever and localised pain. But he said he had not experienced any and neither had others involved in the early-stage trials in China, which involved about 1,700 people.

“People realise how important this is, this race to save humanity," he said.

"But they need to be aware about the process and know about the possible side-effects first."

Dr Al Kaabi said public vaccine trials were a new concept to most people and to the UAE.

'Life will be very different'

Most are carried out over the course of many years – but the search for a Covid-19 vaccine has been hugely accelerated as more than 600,000 people have died from the outbreak in the past six months.

“Because it is new to the community it requires reassurance – reassurance that we are capable of introducing clinical trials here in Abu Dhabi," he said.

"We need people to trust the healthcare system and I think, if we get the right results at the end of this trial, life will be very different [and perhaps return to normal]."

Dr Al Kaabi said he was heartened to see so many Emirati volunteers sign up, but that it was important that those involved came from a variety of backgrounds.

“Sinopharm came all the way from China to [the] UAE to conduct clinical trials because of our unique population which consists of more than 200 nationalities," he said.

The trial is restricted to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and work is under way to set up an office in Al Ain to boost volunteer numbers there.

Officials hope the public will learn more about the Phase III trial and understand the distinction between it and the delivery of a working vaccine, which is thought to be at least a year away.

“We need to differentiate between getting the vaccine and being part of the trial," Dr Al Kaabi said.

The official, 45, and a father of seven children, described his own decision to volunteer.

“Honestly I didn’t tell anyone, neither my wife or my mum," he said. "They only discovered through the news like everyone else.

“I am a physician by training and one of the things that is always close to the heart of a physician is to conduct or be part of research.

"I used to work at the hematology and oncology department as part of my medical training in Germany, conducting some of these trials on cancer patients.

"Right now I am part of the trial, not conducting it, and I am counting the days to see the results."

Volunteers for the Abu Dhabi trial can register at 4humanity.ae or by calling 02 819 1111.

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