November 23, 2020

Why Matthew Wixson, M.D., volunteered for a COVID-19 vaccine trial

Dr. Wixson was one of several participants to share their stories with Michigan Medicine's Kelly Malcom. 

Matthew Wixson, M.D., during the clinical trial. Credit: Bryan McCullough, Hunter Mitchell      
Matthew Wixson, M.D., speaks with a physician during the clinical trial. Credit: Bryan McCullough, Hunter Mitchell

Vaccines are one of the most important tools in modern medicine and have saved countless lives. None of the vaccines we now take for granted would be possible without the bravery of thousands of clinical trial volunteers. And experts agree that an effective vaccine is essential for ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, Michigan Medicine is host to two phase III clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine — the final phase before a vaccine is approved and made available to the world. Vaccine trials are unique in the degree of altruism among their participants. In double-blind trials, such as the ones for the AstraZeneca and Janssen investigational vaccines, neither the study coordinators nor the patients themselves know whether they are receiving a placebo or the real vaccine under study.

Matthew Wixson, M.D., is one of five participants to share their personal stories about why they signed up to be a part of history. Wixson is a clinical assistant professor, associate chair for diversity, and medical student education director in the Department of Anesthesiology. 

In his own words

Participating in the trial is a welcome responsibility. As an African American man and a physician, I wanted to make myself available to help fight this pandemic. I’ve been fighting it on the frontlines as an anesthesiologist, but I also know that a huge part will be vaccination and therapeutics.

Given the history of medicine in this country — with Tuskegee, Henrietta Lacks — minority communities don’t feel as comfortable participating, yet we need representation in these trials. We need data and to know about efficacy. I just felt that I’m in a position where I’m young and healthy and at high risk of exposure and I could really help to turn the corner.

Taking care of patients with COVID-19 is emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausting. It’s especially hard right now knowing what is coming. We got through the first wave; I’m so proud of our department and everyone I worked with and everyone in the hospital. This disease is still so misunderstood and it’s hard to predict who is going to do really poorly and who is going to go without symptoms.

Taking care of patients when they are that sick is tough and sad. My primary role in the first wave was intubating patients and putting them on the ventilator knowing I could be the last person that they communicate with. It was both devastating and a weighty responsibility. Trying to provide care, comfort and connection to them, in that moment of extremus, was really important and will continue to be as we enter the second wave.

I volunteered to say that I’m doing this and I hope that other people who look like me feel safe to do it, too. And not even just in the trial, but when the vaccine comes out, I hope that they’ll say, “Yes, I feel comfortable and I feel safe because the study protocol included minority populations. So, I feel comfortable coming in to get the vaccine.” Because that’s going to be key in getting back to our new normal.

This is an excerpt from an article that first appeared on the Michigan Health Blog. Read the full article.