Now that we’re more than a year into pandemic life and COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief! This has been quite the year. I had the opportunity to interview Ayo Avworo, a local San Antonio mom who has worked on the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. I asked her about her background, her job, mom-life, the vaccine, and what she is looking forward to in the coming months.
1) First, tell us a little about yourself.
I am a Board-Certified Family Nurse Practitioner, a Certified Principal Investigator, a wife, and a mom to two amazing kids, Kaylee – age 6 and Evan – age 4. I work full-time as a clinical trial investigator conducting phase I through IV clinical trials at Clinical Trials of Texas, Inc. When I am not working, I love hiking with my family, doing crafts and activities with my kids, reading, and being outdoors.
2) How do you explain your job to your kids?
I tell them I contribute to finding new and better medicines and treatments to help people get well, stay healthy, and make their lives better.
3) What is a part about your job you really love?
I enjoy doing meaningful work that helps to shape the trajectory of health, science, and medical advancements, improving the quality of life of individuals in and beyond our local community.
4) How has your work been impacted or changed by being/becoming a mom?
Being a mom has enriched my work and career. As a mom of two, you quickly become proficient in conflict resolution, networking (with new moms and friends), communication, listening, creating efficiencies, celebrating little successes…all essential skills needed to excel in the workplace. Beyond these, my children motivate me to always do my best work.
5) What was your main job focus before the pandemic, and has that changed for the foreseeable future?
My organization is a multi-specialty clinical research facility, we do trials on a wide range of indications and so did I. However, the bulk of my work was in women’s health clinical trials on indications such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, bacterial vaginosis, vulvovaginal candidiasis, and sexually transmitted infections. After the pandemic, the focus swiftly shifted to finding a COVID-19 vaccine and exploring treatment options for COVID-19. Consequently, we worked on the Pfizer, Moderna, and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine trials, all of which have now been granted Emergency Use Authorizations by the FDA. COVID-19 is fairly new in comparison to other known human diseases. Thus, I anticipate more trials on prevention and treatments for COVID-19 will continue in the months and years to come.
6) What are some of the main misconceptions you’ve heard about COVID-19 or the vaccine?
A common misconception is the belief that a COVID-19 vaccine will alter the DNA of the recipient. This is incorrect. Though the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, the mRNA in the COVID-19 vaccine does not enter the nucleus of the cell where our DNA and genetic makeup is housed.
Another common misconception is that getting a COVID-19 vaccine will make the recipient sick and test positive for COVID-19 on a viral test. There are no live viruses that can cause COVID-19 in any of the currently authorized vaccines. Therefore, none of the authorized vaccines can cause a person to have a positive viral test (an infection). Immunized individuals may have symptoms such as fever or muscle aches; these are normal and a sign that the body is building protection against the virus. Once immunity is built, some individuals may test positive on some antibody (immunity) tests. This is good because it means your immune system is equipped to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19, keeping you safe.
There is a misconception that individuals who have had COVID-19 and recovered do not need to get a COVID-19 vaccine; they do. Regardless of prior COVID-19 infection status, everyone should be vaccinated against COVID-19.
7) Can you tell us a little about the technology the vaccine was built upon?
Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are both messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. mRNA’s can be likened to a software that reads off DNA (genetic material) and instructs cells to make proteins to prepare the immune system to fight pathogens and prevent infection and disease. mRNA is not embedded into the nucleus of the cell neither does it interact with our genome, it is expressed transiently and degraded. Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is a viral vector-based vaccine. The vaccine uses a modified version of a different virus (Adenovirus) to deliver instructions to our cells, triggering our immune system to produce antibodies that protect us against infection.
8) How do you explain the safety of the vaccine in a way children would understand?
The vaccine works like a teacher. Just like a teacher helps a student learn new ideas and concepts to prepare for a test, the COVID-19 vaccine teaches our body’s soldiers (immune system) to identify and defeat the COVID-19 virus.
9) How soon do you think a vaccine for children will be available? Do you think ultimately that will be needed, or will we achieve herd immunity with just vaccinated adults and teens?
COVID-19 vaccine studies are ongoing for children 12 years and older and the data is promising. As more safety and efficacy analyses are done and data is obtained, we may see the age group for COVID-19 trials expand to include younger children.
The percentage of individuals who need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity varies by disease. Studies are still underway to determine how many people have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for herd immunity to be achieved. With almost 24% of the U.S. population made up of children 0-18 years old, I anticipate we would need to get children and teenagers vaccinated to make it to herd immunity.
10) And finally, what are you most looking forward to, once the pandemic is “over”?
I am really looking forward to going on a beautiful vacation with my entire family.
Thank you so much to Ayo for answering our questions! If you have additional questions for her, please leave them in the comments!