The Jakarta Post
In the past several months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Indonesia, people have come together to help each other amid what many see as an insufficient government response.
Public donations have supplied front-line workers with personal protective equipment and crowdfunding campaigns have been initiated to pay for phone and internet data for students who are distance learning.
Now, with the country pinning its hopes on developing a vaccine, public participation appears to be once again playing a vital role.
At least 1,620 Indonesians are scheduled to take part in the final stage of clinical testing, phase III trials, of a COVID-19 candidate vaccine developed by China's Sinovac Biotech.
Herlina Agustin, 52, said she had wanted to participate in the trials since she heard the news of the candidate vaccine’s arrival in Indonesia in July for clinical testing by state pharmaceutical holding company Bio Farma.
“At first, I thought only certain groups of people could apply to be volunteers. But then I heard that 1,620 volunteers would be needed from among the general public, so I became more convinced to sign up as a volunteer," she said.
Herlina, a Padjadjaran University (Unpad) lecturer and mother of two in Bandung, West Java, said it was not easy to find information about the trials, which are being led by researchers from her university.
She eventually received the information she needed on her family's WhatsApp group from a relative who works as a medical worker at one of the six trial centers in Bandung.
The six centers that are hosting the gradual trials are Unpad's university health center and its teaching hospital, as well as Sukapakir, Garuda, Ciumbuleuit and Dago community health centers (Puskesmas).
Herlina is scheduled to begin her participation in the trials on Aug. 25 at the Dago community health center.
The trials, aimed at assessing the efficacy and safety of the candidate vaccine, will be a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. This means the clinical trial team will inject half of the volunteers with the candidate vaccine and the other half with a placebo. Neither the participants nor the trial team will know who receives what.
Herlina admitted being "nervous and excited at the same time", but said she would not mind not knowing whether she had received the candidate vaccine or the placebo. She said she had full faith that the trial team would not "play around" with someone's life.
"At least, I'm doing something for humanity," she said.
Another volunteer, 44-year-old Rina Mardiana, went through a health assessment and had her sample taken as a requirement for participating in the trials, on Aug. 11, the same day President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo paid a visit to the Unpad hospital for a ceremony to launch the trials.
Rina said she was aware of the risks.
"I want the pandemic to end as soon as possible," she said.
Ferry Ahmad Firdaus, 51, along with his wife, Dewi Diana Sari, 49, and daughter Ezra Pratiwi, 23, have undergone a health assessment in order to participate in the trials.
Ferry said his family wanted to help the government develop a vaccine for its people, even if that meant possibly receiving a placebo and still contracting COVID-19.
"The trial team has explained that we could be receiving a placebo, but in the end everyone will get the real vaccine if the vaccine’s development is successful," Ferry said. "We believe the trial is oriented toward research and that it will be objective."
West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil has also signed up as a volunteer for the trials to show his support and trust toward the researchers. "If their leaders join, the people will have confidence that all the processes are scientific. There's no such thing as sacrificing [the people]," he said.
National COVID-19 task force chief Doni Monardo has also registered as a volunteer for the trials, according to task force spokesperson Wiku Adisasmito, who said it was "part of the government's commitment to provide the maximum protection for citizens against the danger of COVID-19".
Last week, 110 registered volunteers were injected with the candidate vaccine while 10 others were declared unfit to participate in the trials.
To participate in the trials, volunteers must make a commitment to, among other things, not to move out of Bandung or get pregnant, said the clinical trial research team leader, Unpad professor Kusnandi Rusmil.
Each volunteer will receive their second injection after 14 days if they have not developed symptoms or have not contracted COVID-19. Over the course of the seven-month trial, they will be required to attend five check-ups.
Throughout the trial, researchers will take blood samples from the volunteers three times so they can identify any formation of antibodies against the virus, in order to determine the candidate vaccine’s immunogenicity level and efficacy, Kusnandi said.
"We'll compare the results [among the two groups of volunteers]. How safe is it? What is the immunogenicity level? We want to compare the vaccine's efficacy with those who receive the placebo and how many of them have possibly contracted COVID-19. So, we'll have to continuously monitor them," he said.
Bio Farma's R&D project integration manager Neni Nurainy said the company, as part of its liability during clinical trials, would provide all volunteers with health insurance, meaning it would bear the costs of any health problems throughout the process and reimburse them for the cost of travel.
"There's no reward other than that, but the volunteers will have other benefits like access to health facilities, knowing their condition in regards to COVID-19 and, of course, access to the vaccine if the efficacy is good," she said.
-- Ardila Syakriah contributed to this story