“I Was Working on a Potential COVID-19 Vaccine—Then My Wife Got Sick”: Meet a Researcher Whose Personal Experience Is Fueling His Fight Against the Pandemic
In late January—weeks before many people had even heard of the novel coronavirus—Ramon Polo, PharmD, Ph.D., started to work on finding solutions to fight the virus, which data suggested had the potential to become a global pandemic.
As the Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for Infectious Diseases and Vaccines and Global Public Health at Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Polo quickly began to focus on working with healthcare authorities across the globe to collaborate on the development of both therapeutic treatments and a potential vaccine for the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus.
Within weeks, Dr. Polo was confronted with another challenge: His wife, Ana De La Peña, started to experience telltale symptoms of what we now know as COVID-19.
“When Ana tested positive for the novel coronavirus, I was on a mission to develop potential therapeutics and a vaccine for humanity,” says Dr. Polo. “Watching her suffer made it even more important to hold myself to that mission.”
We sat down with Dr. Polo to hear more about the crucial work he and his team are doing to develop a potential COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible—and how his wife’s experience with the disease will forever motivate him to help others.
Ramon Polo: I was visiting my son in New York City, eating a hot dog with him, when I began to sense that my work on the novel coronavirus was going to really ramp up. I had stopped to see my son while en route to Belgium from my home in New Jersey for a work trip, and during that visit, I was seeing reports that the virus was beginning to spread around the world.
I had been working with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) on ways to respond to the novel coronavirus. BARDA, part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, is responsible for countermeasures against threats—including pandemics—and we had been in discussions about the threat of a potential pandemic.
As part of my work, I had assessed the potential of a future pandemic, so I knew one was possible—but I always assumed it would be an influenza outbreak, similar to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
It's my job to work with health authorities, like the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency, to help advance vaccine development, and I had been working with BARDA since 2017 as the principal investigator of a collaboration to fight influenza and other pathogens of emerging concern.
After learning about the potential of a pandemic, my work quickly shifted to focus on the novel coronavirus.
When it looked like the virus was going to start spreading through Europe, my wife traveled to Madrid, where we have aging parents and older relatives who we knew we’d need to help. In February, I met her in Spain, figuring I could work remotely as we waited to see how the spread of the virus would play out.
Within a matter of days, we were essentially stuck in Spain. I could never have predicted how quickly it would spread. My wife and I both followed social distancing protocols, self-isolating as early as March 1, and even organizing food to be shipped to our families so we could isolate.
As I worked around the clock on potential therapeutic treatments and our vaccine candidate, my wife kept our household running, doing the “bunker shopping” as I called it.
On March 13—the height of the outbreak in Madrid—my wife started experiencing headaches and spiked a 102-degree fever. On March 17, she tested positive for COVID-19.
When the Virus Hit Home
Immediately, my wife moved into another room in our home in Madrid and stayed in isolation in an attempt to prevent me from getting sick. It was such a difficult time. For three days after she tested positive, her fever hovered around 101 to 102 degrees and she felt terrible, but thankfully, she didn’t need to be hospitalized. There was a shortage of beds in the hospitals in Madrid, and so many patients were very sick, so I was grateful that, for the time being, we could avoid a hospital stay.
What I also knew is that this disease is strange; patients can start to feel better and then deteriorate quickly. We knew we had a long road ahead before my wife was out of the woods, and we needed to monitor her symptoms.
I was able to locate a pulse oximeter, so we could track her blood oxygen levels. We were also able to connect with a Johnson & Johnson doctor in Spain who helped us so much—not only checking in on my wife and keeping tabs on her symptoms, but also helping me secure masks and gloves. We had none of those supplies when my wife got sick but needed them so that I could wear that protective equipment every time I went upstairs to check on her and drop off some food. Luckily, I never experienced any symptoms myself.
My wife spent more than a month in isolation in our house. While she was sick, I cooked all of our meals, did all of the shopping, and cared for her as best I could. During that same time, work became busier than ever. Our goal was to accelerate every process that goes into creating a vaccine. So, when I wasn’t taking care of my wife, I was at my desk, working with my team on a clear mission: develop potential therapeutics and a vaccine for humanity.
Watching my wife suffer made it even more important to hold myself to that mission.
A New Purpose Springs from a Very Personal Pandemic Experience
It feels like years have passed since I was eating that hot dog in New York with my son, despite the fact that it’s only been a few months. My wife recovered after about a month, and I have thought of little else than COVID-19 since then—and feel even more connected to my mission.
What can my team and I do to deliver a vaccine as soon as possible? Being a part of a group tasked with finding those answers actually helped me cope with what my wife was going through.
Right now, we are completely immersed in the development of our COVID-19 vaccine candidate and the establishment of clinical trials, working with industry and regulators in ways that we never have before. Being part of the solution is a feeling that's difficult to describe.
There are so many encouraging things that have happened along the way. We are accelerating our processes to do everything we can to gain time against the virus, in addition to making sure we have enough manufacturing capabilities. It’s impressive to see how government agencies and companies have come together to make this happen—all in an attempt to make vaccines available as soon as possible.
Before I go to sleep at night, I read as many scientific studies and research papers published that day as possible so I can get acquainted with the findings. Everything is out there and available for free. It’s another example of humanity cooperating and coming together for the greater good.
I’ve been working in pandemic preparedness for years, but nothing could have prepared me for the way this virus spread throughout the world. My wife and I have lost relatives to COVID-19. We have friends who’ve lost loved ones too. When you experience it up close like we did, you want to do what you can to help others in every society avoid this virus.
My goal—and what all of us working on the COVID-19 vaccine hope for—is that we’ll have a successful vaccine that everyone, in every part of the world, will be able to receive. That’s what drives me. It’s a complex process. But we’re coming together, and I’m hopeful we can succeed.