This retired CFO is a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine trial participant and is counting votes in Georgia for the 2020 election — here's what that's like

Courtesy of Stuart Clifford.

For a couple of years, Stuart Clifford had planned the places where he wanted to travel and the things he wanted to do when he finally retired from corporate life in March. Then, the pandemic hit.

"All the lists I had made have been gathering dust," the 66-year-old from Savannah, Georgia tells CNBC Make It.  

Going from a C-suite executive at national retail chain Citi Trends to pandemic lockdown was like "retirement on steroids," he says.

"You go from being a chief financial officer, who's used to exerting a certain amount of influence over the things, to retired in a pandemic and taking it uber seriously," Clifford says.

"You feel like you're on the sidelines of the ballgame."

At such a crucial time, Clifford wanted to get in the game. So he decided to get involved in the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine trial, which with partner BioNTech announced on Monday that their vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19 among those without evidence of prior infection.

But that's not all: Clifford is also volunteering as a ballot collector in Chatham County in Georgia — a state that turned out to be one of the biggest stories of the 2020 election, as President-elect Joe Biden leads the state by a razor-thin margin.

With Clifford's quiet retirement plans put on the shelf, he found himself smack in the middle of two of the biggest events in modern history.

A call to action in turbulent times

Clifford has two adult daughters with his wife, Susan. One is in the restaurant business in Atlanta, and he hasn't been able to see her since March. The other has a son with cerebral palsy who is at extreme risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

"So what do you do with all of that?" Clifford recalls thinking. "I decided I would try to get involved in a vaccine trial, just to give me some sense of power and control."

After researching the different vaccine trials, he landed on the Pfizer trial. The Pfizer vaccine candidate is two shots and uses technology called messenger RNA — aka "mRNA" — which work by producing proteins that mimic the virus that causes Covid-19. Once the immune system recognizes the viral protein, antibodies are produced to fight it.

"I read up on them as much as I could comprehend the science of it — I'm not an epidemiologist, I'm a financial guy," he says.

When Clifford told colleagues and relatives about his plan, many were anxious. Volunteering for a vaccine trial involves "signing away your rights," and accepting that you may encounter side effects, he says.

Clifford says his wife has been supportive because she's sympathetic to the fact that he's been restricted since retirement.

'Jumping in without knowing how deep the water is'

When Clifford volunteered, the Pfizer trial was already in phase 3.

First, there was an initial phone screening in early October, Clifford recalls, followed by an extensive three-hour in-person appointment Oct. 27.

At the appointment, researchers explained the science of how the trial works and possible side effects to Clifford. They also gathered extensive health information from him, including lifestyle and medical history, and he had to sign "an enormous legal disclaimer" agreeing to the terms, he says. Before being handed off to the lab, Clifford had a medical exam including drawing blood, taking blood pressure and recording temperature and blood-oxygen levels.

The uncertainty isn't as powerful as just seeing this thing take over our country.
Stuart Clifford

The final step at the appointment was getting the first shot of either the vaccine or the placebo. It was "pretty surreal," Clifford says. "You're in this clearly lab room, with all kinds of equipment and people in white coats with this enormous freezer. It's sort of a foreign environment than what I'm used to."

Clifford gets flu shots annually and donates blood platelets to the American Red Cross once a month (something he is no longer able to do as a vaccine trial participant), but says this was nerve-wracking.

"Talk about jumping into something without knowing how deep the water is," he says. "I was highly anxious."

"I'm not afraid of needles; I'm not afraid of vaccines," Clifford says. "But this was the unknown."

Since the Pfizer trial is "double-blind," neither the participants nor the researchers know which participants receive a placebo and which get the vaccine. "I was fervently hoping that I got the vaccine, because I don't want to go through all this for a placebo," he says. "You add that layer of anxiety; it's a coin toss."

For 30 minutes after getting the shot, Clifford had to be monitored for an adverse reaction. After that, each day, Clifford monitors side effects and his temperature through a smartphone app.

Some participants have reported fevers, body aches, headaches and exhaustion from the vaccine trials, but so far, "I feel absolutely no different than I did before," Clifford says. "It either means that this thing is an absolute home run, or that I got the placebo."

Pfizer started giving booster shots on July 27, and as of this week, 38,955 people (of the phase 3 clinical trial's 43,538 participants) have already received the second dose of the vaccine, according to a press release from the drugmaker. On Nov. 16, Clifford will go in for his booster shot.

Though Pfizer announced its first "interim efficacy analysis" on Monday (for which an independent panel looked at early data), as the trial continues, the vaccine efficacy percentage could change. At this stage, it's also not clear how long protection against the virus will last. Pfizer plans to submit two months of safety data, which is required for emergency use authorization and includes information on adverse side effects, to the Food and Drug Administration by the third week of November, according to the release.

But the news about the vaccine's efficacy "makes me feel great," Clifford says.

How mRNA vaccines work

The trial will go on for two years, or until the vaccine is approved, Clifford says. "I have to continue with five in-person visits, as well as updating the medical journal on my app for two years," he says.

Clifford says it's worth it. "The uncertainty isn't as powerful as just seeing this thing take over our country," he says. "We really have no path out of this other than the development of a vaccine."

'An integral part of democracy'

Clifford felt a similar call to action this fall, with the 2020 presidential election.

"These things are, in my mind, an integral part of democracy, and they require manpower," he says. He once again told himself: "Get the game, Clifford."

Beginning the first week in October, Clifford was assigned to go to the County Board of Registrar's office, which oversees elections, on Wednesdays. "The first thing I did was take an oath every Wednesday, that I was going to do this, faithfully, accurately [and] without ill intent," he says.

In Georgia, there are three ways to vote: in-person early, absentee by mail or drop-off and in-person on Election Day. So for about three hours, he and a staff member from elections office would drive to drop boxes around the county to unlock, collect, count, verify and record ballots. Then, the sealed ballots are locked in a zippered bag and driven back to the main office to be removed, validated and prepared for processing, he says.

On Election Day, he was assigned a box to go to with a staff member, and at precisely 7 p.m. when polls closed in Georgia, they removed the contents and sealed the box.

Collecting and counting the ballots is "a very prescribed procedure," he says.

The experience as a whole has been "tremendously reaffirming," Clifford says. "There's no question that I have more faith in the process."

It is "absolutely" a surprise to see Georgia flipping blue, Clifford says. (Georgia's count has not been completed. President Donald Trump's campaign filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that late absentee ballots had been mixed with on-time ballots, but the challenge was dismissed due to a lack of evidence.)

On Monday, Clifford was back at it helping with the planned recount in Georgia.

Advice for young people

Clifford admits that he has kicked himself for waiting until he was retired to volunteer. "I was just busy and I had family — but those are just excuses," he says. He hopes young people understand how important volunteering is.

The vaccine trial and the election "don't move forward without people participating," Clifford says.

Plus, volunteering just feels good. "It's self-affirming," he says. "If enough people participate in a tiny way, gosh, it does matter."

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