Don Stevens

Chief Don Stevens, leader of Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe, was the first person to participate the UVM Medical Center and the Larner College of Medicine’s AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine study. When asked why he wanted to be part of the study, he replied that we are all better off together, helping each other.

BURLINGTON – The University of Vermont Medical Center, in collaboration with the Vaccine Testing Center at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, has begun enrolling volunteers as part of the Phase 3 trial of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and manufactured by AstraZeneca. Volunteer participants are randomly assigned to receive either the investigative vaccine or the placebo and are now beginning to receive the first of two injections.

“The UVM Health Network has been at the forefront of our region’s response to COVID-19, providing treatment and testing while also working to prevent the spread of this virus,” said John R. Brumsted, MD, UVM Health Network President and CEO. “Our participation in this vaccine trial is a natural and vital extension of this work. We are drawing on the resources of our academic medical center, the value of our partnership with UVM, the expertise of our people and the volunteer spirit of our communities in an effort to save lives here and around the world.”

Among the first volunteers to receive the vaccine is Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation. Chief Stevens said he felt a particular need to participate in the global effort to create a successful vaccine.

“It’s now known that Native People are at higher risk of illness caused by the COVID-19 virus. Due to health disparities, our people have some of the highest rates in Vermont of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, that increase our risk for COVID-19. It is vital that we protect our elders and most vulnerable from this pandemic. They hold our history and cultural knowledge,” Chief Stevens said. “Participating in this trial will help do just that. As a leader, I would not ask our citizens to do anything I would not do myself. It’s that important for us to participate in helping advance progress toward vaccines for the people.”

The AZD1222 COVID-19 VACCINE Study is researching an investigational vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). The study will track the safety and efficacy of the investigational vaccine. Approximately 30,000 participants from the United States will take part in this study, including at least 250 people locally.

Results from initial Phase I/II trials of the vaccine showed it “was tolerated and generated robust immune responses against the SARS-CoV-2 virus in all evaluated participants,” according to AstraZenaca.

Kristen Pierce, MD, and Beth Kirkpatrick, MD, physician-investigators leading the research team at the Vaccine Testing Center, praised the response from the community as well as the hard work from UVMMC and Vaccine Testing Center team members.

“So many individuals and teams from UVM Medical Center and Larner College of Medicine have helped us prepare for this trial, and we thank them all,” said Pierce.

Both Kirkpatrick and Pierce also credited Physician-Assistant Mary-Claire Walsh, who led efforts to build the study site and train the research teams.

“We are extremely grateful to the overwhelming support of the community volunteers willing to participate in vaccine research to get us closer to the end of this pandemic. We have also appreciated the patience of the volunteers when we had to significantly modify procedures because of the cyberattack at UVMMC,” said Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick said the study team was unable to use UVM Medical Center phones or email over the past two weeks, which slowed communications, but was able to draw from over 2,000 volunteers who signed up for the trial, using a secure web-based questionnaire.

“With some intense work the team was able to rapidly pivot to finalize preparations for the study,” Kirkpatrick said.

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