COVID-19 vaccine trials new patients to clinical research

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TEXAS — If there is anything positive that may come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be in the realm of clinical research. Increased awareness from COVID vaccine trials has led to more patients signing up to be part of studies than in recent history.

For nearly eight months now, Spectrum News 1 has been following Nico Saldivar on his journey through a COVID-19 vaccine trial. Most recently, Saldivar agreed to participate in a COVID-19 booster shot study — the latest in his ongoing Pfizer trial.

Earlier this year, Saldivar found out he was given the COVID-19 vaccine. Once his longtime boyfriend had been inoculated as well, getting back into the gym was one of the first in-person activities they did.

Nico Saldivar stands beside his longtime boyfriend at the gym. (Spectrum News 1)

“That was one thing I was wanting to do, because I didn’t work out like I should have through the pandemic, in my opinion,” commented Saldivar.

The Texas-native enrolled in the vaccine study at Benchmark Research in Austin in April 2020. It was the first study Saldivar had ever been selected to participate in.

“I was very proud to be a part of it, very excited to be a part of it,” said Saldivar. “I mean who didn’t want the world to go back to normal?”

Saldivar was not alone.

In 2020, nearly 16,810 new patients were added to Benchmark Research’s database, compared to just 3,000 new patients added in 2019. An additional 7,000 new patients were added to its database this year, many between the ages of 18-35.

“We’ve seen this younger generation really step up, and sign up, in a way that was totally unexpected,” said Cynthia Dukes, chief business officer for Benchmark Research. 

Dukes has worked in various roles within the clinical research field for over 35 years. She credits increased attention of vaccine trials in the media throughout the pandemic, leading to an increased awareness of clinical research.

“I think this generation that we have, really wants to give back to society,” commented Dukes.

His intentions were certainly altruistic, having invested quite a bit into a move from Marshall to Austin. But not long before the pandemic began, Saldivar admits the downturn of the economy was a big motivator to sign up for the study as well. Albeit, not a lot, but the study did pay money.

“I’m self-employed. I was starting over from scratch,” mentioned Saldivar. “So, every little thing, in my opinion, would have helped.”

Saldivar started signing up for studies and trials well before COVID made headlines, but he was always turned away for one reason or another. 

Dukes admits studies can be very particular at times, looking for specific traits or ailments. The difficulty of locating those often “needle-in-a-haystack” patients can slow down the clinical research process.

“How fast you enroll is how fast you get done with the studies,” commented Dukes.

It’s why the onslaught of new patients listed in Benchmark’s database gives Dukes hope for future clinical research, with more people to possibly pick from.

Doctor works in clinic. (Spectrum News 1)

“As they sign up and grant permission to be part of our database, we reach out to them not only for the COVID studies, but for upcoming studies as well,” said Dukes.

How likely current COVID vaccine patients are to enroll in future studies remains to be seen, and won’t be for at least two years. Vaccine trial participants can’t enroll in multiple studies concurrently. 

Saldivar said he’s willing to participate in additional studies down the road, of course, that’s if he qualifies for them.

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