Alumni News

One Step Away: Developing a Vaccine for COVID-19

Renata Dennis ’81 works in the trenches as a clinical research nurse at Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta

Words: Adrianna Wright ’01
Photos: Amber Zurii

When the vaccine for COVID-19 is at last available, it’s possible that at least one Wheatie will have had a hand in it. One such person might be Renata Dennis ’81 at the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta, a site chosen by a pharmaceutical company to participate in a Phase III evaluation of a new COVID-19 vaccine.

At the clinic, Renata’s title is Clinical Research Nurse III, which means she could serve as a supervisor if she desired. But Renata prefers to be part of the team.

“I want to be one of the troops,” she said.

Each day, Renata dons personal protective equipment—an N95 mask, face shield, and goggles—and sets out to enroll people in Phase III of the vaccine trial, a phase that will eventually include 30,000 participants worldwide. The enrollment process can take up to four hours, during which time Renata assesses risk factors, takes a medical history, and helps participants navigate a 22-page consent form. She also takes each participant’s height, weight, and vital signs.

After they receive a physical exam, Renata enters participants into a proprietary data system so they can be randomized—that is, selected to receive either a placebo or the vaccine. Then a vaccine nurse administers one or the other, and Renata waits with participants for 30 minutes before they are permitted to leave. After 28 days, participants return for a second dose. Then, they will be monitored for two years to see if they develop neutralizing antibodies to COVID-19.

“As stressful as this is, it’s kind of the dream job,” Renata said of her work.

Serving others is nothing new to Renata. From 2012 to 2015, Renata was a part of Wheaton’s Leadership Council, and she has mentored Christian students interested in public health. She even got to teach some lessons in Wheaton’s biology department. Renata was a missionary with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) as well, serving two stints in Germany and Austria evangelizing and discipling students. In fact, Renata continues to volunteer with IVCF on Emory’s campus. She also led a mission trip to Austria last year and currently chairs the missions committee at her church. With both a nursing degree and a master’s degree in public health from Emory University, Renata has held a number of jobs over the years, including a supervisory role at Emory working with mothers, teens, and children with HIV. She then spent eight years providing continuing education on HIV in the Southeastern United States before landing at her current position, where she has worked for five years. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Renata conducted HIV prevention vaccine work under the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Throughout her various roles, Renata has felt called to live out Romans 12:12­—being joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer. During the current pandemic, Renata’s faith does not waver.

“God asks us to have hope and keep praying, despite the affliction,” she said.