Why the VA is recruiting 8,000 volunteers for COVID-19 vaccine trials

The Department of Veterans Affairs is recruiting 8,000 volunteers for the Phase 3 clinical trials of at least four COVID-19 vaccine candidates at 20 federal medical facilities across the U.S., according to officials with the VA and Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s initiative to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.

The largely unpublicized effort follows a Department of Defense announcement in September that it has partnered with AstraZeneca to recruit volunteers at five of its medical facilities, which are separate from the VA system.

DOD is also is in talks with developers of other vaccine candidates, although officials won’t say which ones.

Both federal departments have long experience in medical research and diverse populations – a crucial component of effective clinical trials, said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president and director of global health policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Since active troops are essential to national security, and veterans are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, both departments have a vested interest in supporting the development of safe, effective vaccines, Morrison said.

“On the DOD active servicemen and -women side, it’s a question of making sure they’re ready, they are protected,” Morrison said. “With VA, their population, all elderly and infirm with underlying conditions, they could really be suffering if we don’t get a vaccine.” According to a VA website, of its 20 medical centers involved, 17 would be part of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial, while the three others are recruiting – or have completed recruitment – for advanced-stage trials for Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.

Another way to serve
Dr. Matthew Hepburn, head of vaccine development at Operation Warp Speed, said the VA effort lets veterans contribute to the overall well-being of the country. “This is another way they can continue to serve in this way, fighting the pandemic as a volunteer,” Hepburn said during a discussion of vaccine and therapeutics development hosted by the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 27. It’s not unusual for the military to participate in multicenter trials for treatments of ailments as diverse as cancer and trauma. Historically, many vaccines have been tested first by the military.

In the general population, clinicians often have difficulty recruiting African Americans and other minorities for medical research, and “the military provides a rich opportunity to find volunteers for those groups,” said retired Rear Adm. Thomas Cullison, a doctor and former deputy surgeon general for the Navy.

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