In this week’s volunteer interview, volunteer Julius Hege discusses his participation in a Phase Ib vaccine trial in Germany, as well as German spending on international aid and Bavarian culture.
Gavriel: Can you tell me about yourself–where you’re from and how you spend your time?
Julius: I’m from Kassel, Germany originally and am in my third semester of a masters in mathematics at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. I also work there as a student research assistant at the Chair for Mathematical Foundations of Artificial Intelligence. During the first lockdown I took up jogging and I just got an electric piano for my birthday. I hope I get much better at both than I currently am.
Gavriel: How did you find out about 1Day Sooner and what made you decide to sign up?
Julius: Social media–Facebook or the Effective Altruism Forum I think. I went on the website and thought it sounded reasonable, so I signed up for the mailing list.
Gavriel: When you signed up, how were you thinking about your decision? Did you think about the risks to yourself?
Julius: Yeah, definitely, especially since I didn’t know much about the risks. It seemed obvious that there was a benefit. I thought I’d get information on the exact risks later if I decided to go through with it.
Gavriel: You’re unusual among the volunteers because you held off on getting the vaccine for quite a while, specifically in order to participate in a trial. Can you describe the decision process?
Julius: At the beginning, when COVID hit and everything stopped, I was living in the UK and going to university until I graduated. When I signed up for 1Day Sooner, it seemed like I might be able to participate in the UK challenge trials. But I didn’t count as British — you had to be registered with a general practitioner in the UK. Being a healthy student, I hadn’t bothered with that in three years of undergrad. There were at that point some plans for challenge trials in the Netherlands, and I thought that might be something I could participate in. At this point I had then read a news article that it was increasingly hard for studies to find people who had not yet been vaccinated but still wanted to get a trial vaccine, because of course it’s a bit of an unusual combination. Most people who had not yet been vaccinated by that point either had a good reason or were skeptical of vaccines. I slid into it a little bit. At first, it was kind of hard to get a vaccine appointment in Germany. They were rare, everyone wanted them. So I thought it made sense, given that I wanted to participate in a trial later, to let others ahead of me. But soon, it didn’t work out like that anymore. There were too many doses delivered to German doctors’ offices and they didn’t have enough people who still wanted to get vaccinated before the expiration date. Still, I wanted to preserve the possibility of participating in a trial. My thinking was that I’d have more impact the harder it was for people to find another participant to replace me.
Gavriel: How long did that mean you held off on getting your vaccine, from the time that vaccines were available to the general public until you were recruited for this trial?
Julius: It was about two months, so not too long. I started feeling very silly at that point as well, because it sounds stupid. There weren’t that many clinical trials around that were looking for unvaccinated individuals! So there was a serious risk that I wouldn’t have found such a trial and then I’d have egg on my face and gotten vaccinated the usual way sometime later.
Gavriel: It makes perfect sense as to why you held off! Were you talking to other people around you about your decision? What kind of discussions did you wind up having with the people around you?
Julius: Vaccines were of course a big topic of conversations. Most reactions were pretty positive, but in my family it was controversial. They all got vaccinated at the earliest possibility. And to be fair, other people probably bore the main risk from me delaying my vaccination. I’m young and healthy, so if I get COVID, it’s still serious, but potentially not as much as if I gave it to someone. Part of why I decided to do this was because it was relatively easy for me. I didn’t have any contact with people in risk groups, and my university and job were completely online, so I was able to not be exposed that much. I thought the cost of delaying my vaccination was unusually low compared to other people.
Gavriel: Describe the trial you were recruited for.
Julius: It is a Phase Ib. They had done a Phase I already in 2020 for a vaccine called MVA-SARS-2-S, a vector vaccine based on something called MVA, an attenuated poxvirus, and it didn’t really work out that well! They didn’t have any major side effects, but it didn’t produce a strong antibody response, so they went back to the drawing board, made some changes, and now they have a new vaccine called MVA-SARS-2-ST. For this they needed unvaccinated individuals. Originally it was 30 people, but they’ve since reduced it to 24. I guess that’s nice for me, because it validates my idea that I was hard to replace. They were searching for participants for several months.
Gavriel: What was your experience like?
Julius: It was really interesting. Everyone there was super nice and very caring. There were two vaccinations and ten follow-up visits where they take your blood and vitals to check the vaccines effectiveness. And the side effects were totally normal, what you’d get from any vaccine. It was super professional. Having to travel to Hamburg repeatedly was by far the most onerous part, which is definitely a compliment for the people running the trial. Just on a personal level, it’s been very fun and an interesting story. I’ve been telling people about it very aggressively. My grandchildren will one day be bored of my heroic tales.
Gavriel: You just gave an interview to Der Spiegel about how you can’t get a vaccine passport in Germany because of this trial. Is there anything that could be changed about that?
Julius: I think so. Participants are hard to find anyway, so this is setting the exactly wrong incentive. Participants are hard to find anyway. And as far as I know, no expert has ever argued participants should not get a vaccine passport. Honestly, I think it is just an oversight. People in parliament make these rules and they have a thousand special interest groups in their ear and the one of trial participants isn’t necessarily the biggest or most vocal one, so it just sort of slipped through.
Gavriel: Has your phase of the trial concluded? Has data been released?
Julius: The trial is still running, but they are already starting the next part where volunteers who already have been vaccinated will get it as a booster–they’re overlapping. The antibody response is supposed to be better this time. But no numbers have been released yet.
Gavriel: Are there any health policies you want to advocate for, or changes to public health you would like to see?
Julius: German health policies seem mostly alright to me. I don’t know anything I’d obviously want to change. Except maybe that health policy in Germany is of course mostly focused on the health of Germans. I think it would make sense to look more at global health. We’re just about spending 0.7% of GDP on international aid, as opposed to more than 11% spent on domestic healthcare. I’d want that to be less disproportionate. Of course, it makes sense that the government of Germany has to take care of its own citizens who pay taxes and all that. But currently we’re in effect willing to spend 100 times or more for the same illness if it happens to a German.
Gavriel: Where do your ethics come from? How did you develop your sense of ethics?
Julius: I read this book by Peter Singer when I was seventeen and thought it made sense. It was the first real philosophy book I ever seriously read, so I do worry about how maybe I just attached to the first idea I read. Before that, I never really thought about helping other people. So maybe if I’d read a copy of Das Kapital I’d be a Communist now or something.
Gavriel: What’s the pandemic situation like where you are right now?
Julius: The number of cases have been going down since early December in Germany, but of course what people are worried about now is the omicron variant. In other European countries, the case numbers are very much going in the hockey stick direction, so it might be a matter of days before the trend reverses in Germany as well, and hospitals are pretty much full or at capacity already. There’s a lot of talk about triage coming soon, which sounds scary.
Gavriel: What’s something you love about where you live?
Julius: As a student in Munich, I think the architecture of the city is pretty nice, especially having lived before that in Kassel and Coventry — both cities known for questionable architecture.
Gavriel: Could you describe Germany to someone who doesn’t know much about it?
Julius: Germany is the most populous member state of the European Union. It sometimes feels like the most boring country in the world, which is in some sense a positive thing! I’m not really sure what else to say. Except that you can’t find good bread outside of Germany. I can give you a much better answer about Bavaria than Germany, because there’s a lot of Bavarian clichés. It’s sometimes called Germany’s Texas. It sees itself as different from other states. It’s the only state with its own political party that’s been in power for decades and is represented nationally. We even have a space program–one of the smaller ones.
Gavriel: That sounds exactly like Texas. There are three electric grids that serve the United States: the grid that serves the eastern half, the one that serves the western half, and the one that serves Texas. They set up their own electric grid in case they want to secede!
Julius: Exactly. It’s called the “Free State of Bavaria” as well. There’s a mild threat there.