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Why this scientist decided to be a human guinea pig for COVID-19 vaccine

Dr Fercher is one of the 120 people who are participating in phase-1 of UQ's COVID-19 vaccine trial. Source: UQ

Dr Christian Fercher is one of the first people in Australia to receive an experimental dose of the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by scientists at the University of Queensland. The 33-year-old migrant received the vaccine in mid-July but not before assuring his mother in Austria that the trial would be safe.

When it comes to diseases and vaccines, Dr Christian Fercher knows more than most of us. He has a PhD from the University of Graz and works as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at UQ in Brisbane.

He is one of the 120 people between the ages of 18 and 55 chosen to receive the COVID-19 vaccine shots during  phase-1 of the human trial at the University of Queensland. 

"I wasn't actually that nervous," he says.

Working at UQ on an unrelated project in a lab next door from the scientists involved in Australia's search for a COVID-19 vaccine, he says he observed the researchers and knew from the pre-clinical testing that this particular vaccine would probably be "quite safe".

The vaccine is based on UQ's molecular clamp technology that locks the ‘spike’ protein into a shape which allows the immune system to respond to the virus.

Christian Fercher human guinea pig UQ Brisbane vaccine
Dr Christian Fercher at work in his lab at Queensland University.
Christian Fercher

On 13 July, Dr Fercher was inoculated with a five microgram solution containing either the vaccine or a placebo. He was the second person to receive it, out of 120 participants selected from a pool of 4,000 applicants.

"My mother wasn't very excited about her son trying an experimental vaccine," he laughs. "But she trusted my expertise as a scientist and in the end was actually quite proud of me when she realised I didn't really have any adverse reaction to the vaccination." 

Why is he doing it?

Christian Fercher met his Australian wife on a train in Europe. They have been married for over a year and plan to raise a family in Brisbane. But he does miss his mother and brother in Austria.

"And also the mountains of my native Carinthia not far from the Slovenian border," he sighs. For Dr Fercher, this is the personal motivation to ensure a vaccine is found soon.

"Of course, I'm doing this so that we can all get out of this as fast as possible," he says, citing the tragic loss of human life, huge financial cost and massive unemployment.

"On the other hand, I haven't seen my family for a year now and don't expect to see them for probably another year. So I have a personal motivation to be able to travel internationally again."

Christian Fercher human guinea pig UQ Brisbane vaccine
Dr Fercher (right) with his mother Christine and brother Michael.
Christian Fercher

Dr Fercher won’t know if he received the vaccine or a placebo – and, like other, he needs to maintain all the same social distancing and hygiene practices.

What's next?

Dr Fercher says he is confident that so far he has not displayed any negative side effects. His involvement in the UQ phase-1 clinical trial will run for 13 months. This trial aims to establish the correct dose, efficacy and safety of the experimental vaccine.

Dr Fercher is scheduled to receive a second dose on 10 August. If all goes to plan, phase-2 could start in October or November. It will be a larger trial with people from a range of ages, to ensure the vaccine works across the board. 

Because time is of the essence, phases-1 and 2 don't need to be sequential and can run concurrently. UQ has already partnered with Australian pharmaceutical giant CSL to produce up to 100 million doses, with the manufacturing of the vaccine to run alongside clinical trials.