By Ken Bastida & Molly McCreaBy Ken Bastida

PALO ALTO (KPIX) — Stanford University is one of 180 sites around the world involved in a late-stage clinical trial that is testing Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

Stanford graduate and researcher Walter Sobba was the first in line to roll up his sleeve to see whether the experimental vaccine worked.

“It didn’t hurt at all. I mean, I got a needle prick and that was about the most I felt,” explained Sobba.

The trial hopes to enroll at least 60,000 individuals but it was halted a few weeks ago after a participant suffered an unexplained illness. An independent board of investigators jumped in to probe whether the illness was triggered by the vaccine or not.

“They reviewed it in a blinded fashion, and they found the event was not related to the vaccine,” noted Dr. Philip Grant, an infectious disease expert and principal investigator of the Stanford arm of the trial.

Grant’s team expects to enroll about 1000 participants. They are especially interested in enrolling those whose homes or work put them at higher risk for a COVID-19 infection. These include first line responders, essential workers such as those who work in grocery stores, ride-share drivers, and those who live together with many individuals under one roof.

“Whether it be in their household environment in that they’re living in a multi-generational setting or their workplace requires them to contact other individuals,” explained Dr. Grant.

The team is interested in recruiting members of the Latinx community and have Spanish speakers on board. They are also interested in enrolling individuals 60 years of age and older.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a leg up on its competitors. The platform it uses is already in vaccines in use, most notably for the Ebola virus. The technology takes a bit of the coronavirus DNA or genetic material and puts it inside a weakened cold virus. After a single shot, the idea is that the DNA or genetic material alerts the immune system to fight off a COVID-19 infection.

The Johnson & Johnson Ebola vaccine has already been used in many individuals, including pregnant women. The study is a double-blind, placebo-controlled, or “gold-standard” trial.

Sobba said he has no safety qualms about being enrolled.

“There are a lot of people who are taking higher risks that I am in this setting. All the front-line workers who are out there possibly exposing themselves to COVID each day are taking a much higher risk,” explained the researcher.

For more info on the trial, called EMSEMBLE, visit: https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04505722.

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