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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An Austin-based program manager for Apple Maps and one of two leaders for the #AppleToo activist movement said she has been fired after a suspension.
According to the New York Times, Janneke Parrish said she was put on suspension for several days while the company investigated her activities before she was fired by a human resources employee via phone call on Thursday.
Parrish was under investigation for allegedly leaking a recording of an Apple staff meeting to the media, which she said she didn't do.
The report said the company told Parrish, who is 30, that she was being fired for having deleted files off her company-issued phone and computer before handing them in for examination. Parrish said the files she deleted contained her personal and financial information.
Among the files she deleted were the Robinhood app, which she said was to keep Apple from seeing "how much money I lost investing in GameStop," the Pokemon Go app and screenshots of programming bugs she was fixing.
Parrish said she believes Apple was retaliating against her efforts in organizing #AppleToo, a group of employees working to expose the company's "culture of secrecy" that has been "faced disproportionately by our Black, Indigenous, and other colleagues from minoritized racial, gender and historically marginalized groups of people."
Parrish had been publishing weekly accounts of workplace problems that had been shared anonymously with her from other employees, though she did not verify employment on all of them. The accounts she received were in the hundreds, so Parrish said she was hopeful her termination would lead to some justice within the company.
Employees at tech giants have been more outspoken than usual in recent months—with former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen speaking out against her former employer—and Parrish said the company's desire to keep under wraps has eroded trust by discouraging employees to come forward with issues like harassment or wage disparity.
Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock commented on the matter: "We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters."
Additionally, the email detailing her termination, which was obtained by the New York Times, said Apple had determined that Parrish "engaged in conduct in violation of Apple policies including, but not limited to, interfering with an investigation by deleting files on your company provided equipment after being specifically instructed not to do so."
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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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