‘I can tell my kids: You did something special’
Merck scientist Angela Jablonski explains why she enrolled her children in a pediatric COVID-19 vaccine trial
February 11, 2022
Like many parents of young children, Angela Jablonski felt helpless and frustrated as COVID-19 vaccines rolled out for adults and older kids while little ones remained unprotected.
“It felt like everyone was starting to get back to normal, especially over the summer, but people with younger kids were left in this limbo of what’s safe and what isn’t,” said Jablonski, a Merck senior scientist with Global Regulatory Affairs & Clinical Safety, as well as mom to Jack, 3, and Leo, 1.
Two years into the pandemic, parents are still waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 and under to be approved, and the Omicron surge has only intensified the toll on families.
Jablonski, who lost a cousin to COVID-19 in December of 2020, just three months after Leo was born, ultimately decided that standing by was no longer an option. In the summer of 2021, she filled out an interest form for a pediatric vaccine clinical trial at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). By the fall, Leo and Jack were enrolled in a Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine study for children ages 6 months to 5 years.
“If you know someone who passed away from COVID-19, it can be difficult to move on and accept it, knowing that this virus changed your life in a permanent way,” said Jablonski, adding that the death of her cousin, a frontline health care worker known for his kindness to patients, has left a deep wound in her family. “This was a way to honor my cousin and contribute to the science.”
“Someone has to go first”
Jablonski acknowledged that not all parents are eager to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 and said she and her husband faced some criticism over their decision to take part in a double-blind clinical trial (meaning that participants don’t know for sure whether they’re receiving the vaccine or a placebo).
“One of the criticisms I got was, ‘Oh my God, you’re experimenting on your kids,’” she said. “But when you think about any major breakthrough in science, it takes a group of people to bring that medicine about for everyone. Someone has to go first.”
If anything, Jablonski said, participating in the study made her feel even more confident about vaccinating her children because they would be so closely monitored throughout the process. There are regular check-ins, medical exams and COVID tests, and Jablonski and her husband submit e-diary entries charting their children’s progress.
“For me, the people who really helped bring this about were the Phase 1 trial participants, where they’re just checking if the vaccine is safe and picking the optimal dose,” she said. “In my mind, those are some of the real heroes.”
A way of healing
Now three months into the vaccine clinical trial, Jablonski said the hardest part has been the blood draws – “because, as you can imagine, a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old having their blood drawn isn’t fun.”
Otherwise, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive, she said. The kids have become pros at taking COVID-19 tests, occasionally sleeping through the nose swabs, and Jack loves the superhero mask and teddy bear he got from the staff at CHOP.
And, Jablonski adds, “As a scientist, it’s incredible to see how it’s done and to know that we’re a part of that.”
When she thinks back to the earlier days of the pandemic – worrying whether her husband would be allowed at the hospital during Leo’s birth, being isolated with a new baby and toddler, and losing her cousin – Jablonski feels fortunate to be where she is now.
“I did feel like my pregnancy and the first year of Leo’s life was joyous, but there was a cloud over it, especially when my cousin passed away,” she said. “This is almost like a way of healing and bringing something positive out of such a hard experience. And I can tell my kids: ‘You guys did something special. We lost a lot, and it was really tough, but you helped bring about something good for other kids.’”