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As pharmaceutical companies and the federal government race to find a coronavirus vaccine, one Austin company is running clinical trials to see if the contenders have what it takes.
Benchmark Research is recruiting volunteers for four coronavirus vaccine trials—and preparing for more than a dozen more in the next few months—across five different cities, including more than 8,300 in Austin alone.
"We're just trying to find the vaccine as quickly as we possibly can," CEO Mark Lacy told Austonia.
But there are some challenges, including the warp speed of these trials and finding enough volunteers to participate.
A speeded-up process
The approval process for a vaccine is typically four to five years, Lacy said. But the coronavirus trials aren't typical.
"This is an extraordinarily speeded-up process," Lacy said.
Benchmark handles vaccine trials in the second and third stages—once they've already been tested on animals and are considered safe for humans. The goal of these later stages is to test for efficacy.
To do this, Benchmark recruits volunteers who meet the necessary criteria. In the case of the coronavirus trials, the company is largely focused on enrolling high-risk populations: essential workers, minority groups, individuals over 65 and those with chronic health conditions.
The government-funded trials are also focused on regions "heavily in surge," Lacy said.
Eligible volunteers will be enrolled in the coronavirus studies, which generally require a one- to two-year commitment, with regular in-person checkups and some other requirements.
One of the vaccines Benchmark is helping to study is from the Boston-based biotech firm Moderna.
The company, in partnership with researchers from the National Institutes of Health, developed a potential vaccine and produced it for human trials in record time—66 days after scientists sequenced the viral genome.
The first trial began in early March, and early results were published on Tuesday. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told Bloomberg the Moderna vaccine data is "really quite promising."
The vaccine trial entered its final phase this month, with Benchmark studying whether it prevents symptomatic COVID-19 among volunteers.
At the current dose, the company is on track to deliver around 500 million doses a year by 2021, according to a June 11 press release.
While every stage of vaccine development has been rushed, finding volunteers to test it on takes time.
Over the last 15 years, Benchmark has worked with more than 28,000 trial participants and studied vaccines for everything from anthrax to the Zika virus. But these coronavirus studies have been different.
"It's a bigger challenge than anyone would expect, because while there is a great interest in finding and being able to be one of the first ones with a cure, there's also a tremendous amount of fear," Lacy said.
Volunteers have many reasons to participate, including altruism, but they are also compensated for their time—usually between $1,000 and $1,500.
Money is what drew Katlyn Hahn, a 32-year-old Cedar Park resident, to participate in a Benchmark trial studying an Ebola vaccine in 2015.
Initially, Hahn had some reservations. "But I felt more at ease when they let me know that I wasn't the very first guinea pig," she said.
Once enrolled, Hahn attended appointments every week or two, where a doctor would draw blood and review her diary, where she recorded her vitals and any side effects. Each time, she would walk out with almost $200.
"I would say that I was happy to help because I felt fulfilled that I was doing something to help my fellow man," she said. "And also—I think that I got the placebo."
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Summertime sure does fly by, doesn't it? It's time to jam-pack as many summer activities as you can while there is still about a month left before school starts up again and the grind gets going. Luckily, Austin is full of places to visit that will fill your season full of memories.
To get you started, check out some of these seasonably-fit museums, galleries and snacks.
Beyond Van Gogh, 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd.
Like the name suggests, Beyond Van Gogh Austin takes visitors deeper into the Dutch painter's work by surrounding them in his post-impressionist world. Aptly taking place at the Starry Night Pavilion at the Circuit of the Americas, this immersive exhibit allows Vincent Van Gogh's masterpieces to be "freed from frames" as they are projected onto the walls and floors for guests to explore. Van Gogh's thoughts, dreams and words are set to a symphonic score to drive the narrative as you walk through the rooms, giving visitors insight into the tortured artist's swirly world. Adult tickets start at $46.99, children at $28.99 and it offers student and military discounts while the museum runs through Sept. 5.
Museum of Ice Cream, 11506 Century Oaks Terrace
The runaway hit from New York City has made its way to Austin, complete with a rainbow sprinkle pool, banana forest and bright-pink-everything exterior. The Museum of Ice Cream is a favorite of major celebrities—Beyoncé, Ryan Reynolds and the Kardashian Krew have all been spotted at the New York Location. The whimsical museum promises an undisclosed "Texas twist" at its new Austin location, which also has an on-brand café that serves Museum of Ice Cream original treats. You didn't think you'd leave without ice cream, did you? Tickets run $39 per person.
The Selfie Galleries, 3220 Amy Donovan Plaza
Looking for a place to get that perfect summer selfie? Look no further, because the newly-opened Selfie Galleries has 20 wildly decorated different rooms to roam through, capturing an unforgettable photo of yourself and your faves in each one. The backdrops were made so you can flex your creative muscle and make some documented memories at the same time. The gallery also hosts mixers for all age groups so you can meet local Austinites in a safe setting. Tickets start at $20 for an hour, $40 for two, depending on how many people you bring along.
Wonderspaces, 1205 Sheldon Cove
The self-proclaimed "new home for extraordinary art," Wonderspaces is an interactive art gallery like you've never experienced before. With rotating exhibits that you can touch, Instagram and ogle, the artwork is designed for everyone to create their own unique experience when visiting. Virtual reality, a house of mirrors, anonymous conversations and a dragon made of teabags are just a few of the wild installations that make this museum what it is—plus, you can enjoy some local brews at the Wonderspaces Bar. Adults can visit for $24, kids for $15 or you can get an annual pass for $99 and visit each new piece.
Milk Bar Bakery, delivery only
Maybe you want an experience without the outing. Thanks to ghost kitchens, the brainchild of Christina Tosi came all the way from The Big Apple to the Lone Star State. The well-celebrated Milk Bar Bakery is now available in Austin through third-party delivery only, meaning you can get the full line of milk bar cookies, bar pie, truffle crumb cakes and its famous layered birthday cakes through UberEats, GrubHub, DoorDash and Postmates only. If you haven't had these rich cookies yet, it's time to fire up that delivery app and get to ordering!
Soak up the rest of summer while you can!
- 1 1/12 oz sweet pepper-infused Tito's Handmade Vodka
- 3 oz soda water
- 1 oz grapefruit juice
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- 1/4 oz simple syrup
The Biden administration is asking cities and states to use pandemic relief funds to pay residents $100 to get vaccinated. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reaffirmed prohibitions on pandemic protocols in a new executive order issued on Thursday.
The order emphasizes that "the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates," according to a press release. It outlaws government entities from requiring employees to be vaccinated or individuals to provide proof of vaccination and upholds previous orders restricting government entities' ability to impose pandemic protocols.
Local public health and elected officials have asked all Austinites to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and unvaccinated individuals to avoid nonessential trips last week given the rising number of local confirmed cases and related hospitalizations in recent weeks. But it is not enforceable under Abbott's order.
The seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions in the five-county Austin metro has more than quintupled since the beginning of July and is now 47.4. The threshold for Stage 5 is 50, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines.
Despite these trends, Abbott stands firm in his commitment to avoid new statewide mandates and to prohibit local government entities from issuing any of their own.
"Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19," he said in a statement. "They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses and engage in leisure activities."
Public health officials have attributed the current spike to the more contagious Delta variant and unmitigated spread among unvaccinated individuals. Abbott encouraged Texans to get vaccinated if they haven't already but affirmed that it would never be required by the state in his statement.
An increasing number of Austin-area employers—including Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health, Facebook and the Department of Veterans Affairs—have announced new vaccine requirements in recent days. Austin Mayor Steve Adler asked the city manager to enact a similar requirement on Wednesday, but the city is unable to do so due to an executive order issued by Abbott in April.
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