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Why I signed up to be a human tester for coronavirus vaccine

Biographer remembers friend who died from Covid-19 as he takes part in trial

30 October, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Francis Beckett may have been injected with a vaccine contender – or a saltwater placebo

A POLITICAL biographer has told how he ­volunteered for a vaccine trial after one of his friends died from the coronavirus.

Francis Beckett, 75, said he was wondering whether he may now be immune to Covid-19 after he was injected with either a vaccine contender or a placebo made of salt water.

He volunteered for the tests taking place at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead and said he had Mike Pentelow, a former colleague, in mind.

Mr Pentelow, who lived in Fitzrovia and chronicled life in the area with articles and history features in the Fitzrovia News, died in April from the virus. Mr Beckett said: “I knew Mike when he was on the Morning Star and also really from trade unions. He’s certainly one of the reasons I volunteered. But I also thought I’m not doing an awful lot else right now. I had a few nice plans this year, none of which are going to happen and I thought it would be good to be inside of something interesting and important.”

Mr Beckett, known for biographies of Labour prime ministers Clement Attlee, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, added: “We need to know that people my age can go to shops, pubs, restaurants and theatres safely again. I thought if I got the vaccine that’s rather nice because, unless a complete dud, which I doubt it is, I’m immune. People keep asking me if I am all right but I don’t feel like an adventurer really.”

Mr Beckett said he had become “terribly old fartish” about Covid restrictions during lockdown, adding: “I catch myself saying things to people like ‘can you put your mask on properly, there’s no point in wearing it like that’. I don’t want to be that person, but I am sometimes.”

As a journalist, Mr Beckett has written regularly for the Guardian and Independent, often on education reforms. More than 9,000 people have volunteered for the Novavax vaccine and there have so far been no reported side effects.

On the second floor of the Royal Free Mr Beckett said he had come across “half a dozen people all substantially younger than me”.

“I had polio when I was five, and they seemed worried about that at first, which shows the level of concern that they are at,” he said. “They want to be absolutely sure that someone of my age was really in good health.”

He added: “There was a sad little note on one door saying we are having to prioritise gel in the dispensers because we don’t have enough to fill them all up. At the same time every page of every letter I received about the trial was headed with ‘Royal Free, World Class Expertise’. Boris Johnson has stripped that phrase of what little meaning it had.”

The trial, which began on October 3, has seen one group of participants receiving two doses of the potential vaccine 21 days apart, and the other group receiving the salt water placebo.

The Royal Free is also taking part in a second vaccine study, called the Human Challenge Programme, where healthy volunteers are intentionally injected with small doses of the coronavirus.

“The aim is to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a person to become infected,” the hospital said.

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