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Local residents contribute to critical COVID-19 research

People throughout the West County area are stepping up to help in the fight against COVID-19. This includes not only healthcare workers and other front-line professionals, but also local residents of all ages who have put their own health on the line to test medications that could possibly reduce the pandemic’s impact – or eliminate it once and for all.

Playing a part in reaching that goal was what motivated Jim Enright, of Chesterfield, to respond when he heard this summer about trials of potential vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech taking place in the St. Louis area. Pfizer announced in November that its resulting vaccine candidate is 95% effective against the virus.

“I come from the mindset that you can’t really lead from the rear. Sometimes you have to get out front,” said Enright. 

After filling out a prequalification questionnaire online, the 55-year-old went through a series of interviews and answered many detailed health questions before learning he had been accepted into the trial in August. In September, he reported to Sundance Clinical Research in Creve Coeur for the first of two injections, and received a second about a month later.

Although he doesn’t know whether he received the vaccine or a placebo, he said he did experience some unusual fatigue following both shots. In addition to his time spent in the qualification phase of the trial, he also has contributed many hours to study visits, follow-up appointments and questionnaires, a daily health monitoring journal, and periodic bloodwork which includes testing for COVID-19. He has had no symptoms or positive test results to date.

“I come from the mindset that you can’t really lead from the rear. Sometimes you have to get out front.”

-Jim Enright

“I’m humbled and excited to be participating,” Enright said.  “I’ve lived in Chesterfield for 25-plus years, so it’s neat that this is happening here locally.”

The race for vaccines isn’t the only research area in which local citizens are having an impact. Residents and staff at Bethesda Dilworth, located on Big Bend Road in the Kirkwood area, also recently came forward to help in the urgent search for treatments to prevent severe cases of the virus, which has so devastated the elderly. 

Bethesda was the only St. Louis area senior living organization to partner with Eli Lilly and Company on a trial of bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody therapy engineered from one of the first Americans to recover from COVID-19. The national trial was designed to investigate the drug for its ability to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19 in residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Kiel Peregrin, Bethesda’s senior vice president of operations, said he reached out to Eli Lilly after a resident’s son brought the trial to his attention in August. Although the company had not yet done any study work in Missouri, Peregrin said Lilly identified Bethesda as an ideal research partner due to its size, its diligence in following federal, state and local guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus within the community, and other factors.   

At the same time, he said, more and more residents were voicing their desire to do whatever they could to help advance treatments for COVID-19. And just days before the trial was set to begin on Nov. 14, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for bamlanivimab for the treatment of mild-to-moderate cases of the virus.

The EUA allows use of the drug for patients testing positive who are considered at high risk for severe disease and/or hospitalization. This exciting development only increased residents’ interest in the trial, Peregrin said.

In all, 46 Bethesda Dilworth residents and staff members participated in the study, the largest number of volunteers Lilly had received at any U.S. location to date. 

Their commitment, along with several hours of their time, was receiving one infused dose of either the antibody treatment or a placebo. As part of a monitoring phase which will end in May of next year, the participants keep track of their vital signs and answer a health questionnaire every day, are tested for COVID-19 at least weekly, and undergo monthly lab work. 

“The great experience for us was having a high number of people wanting to be part of the solution, wanting to be part of saving lives in the future,” Peregrin said. “This has been so hard for everyone … It’s great to be part of what could become a solution.”

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