Butch steps up

Former Butch T. Cougar and ASWSU President Zach Wurtz helps test a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

Zach Wurtz, the former student body president who also served as WSU’s mascot, is participating in a clinical trial in hopes of helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If I can help either slow the spread or—in the future—eliminate the kind of situation we find ourselves in now, I’m down to help any way I can,” Wurtz says.

Wurtz (x’07 Comm.) served as ASWSU president during the 2006-2007 academic year. For three years before that, he led a double life, portraying Butch The Cougar at football, basketball, and other games as well as events and special appearances.

Today, the 36-year-old Seattle resident is one of the 45 people selected to help test a potential COVID-19 vaccine. The trial is being conducted at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. The vaccine, code-named mRNA-1273, was developed by the biotechnology company Moderna and National Institutes of Health.

Wurtz learned of the trial through a Facebook post and called for more information. After initial health screenings, he received his first injection March 24. The shots don’t contain the COVID-19 virus. Rather, they include genetic code that prompts cells to produce protein found in the virus, which should then trigger an immune response to potentially fight the virus.

“Oversimplified,” Wurtz wrote on his Facebook page, “I’ll be given only the shell of the virus in hopes the body creates and stores an antibody that recognizes the shell and kills the virus should it ever be exposed to the real thing.” He’s not under quarantine but “is practicing all the same social distancing measures” people are being asked to follow and is at “no more (or less) risk than anyone else.”

Zach Wurtz wearing a mask in Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute Research Clinic giving a thumbs up in a selfie.

While he was being screened for the trial in early March, his parents—both in their early 60s—were recovering from the novel coronavirus at their home in Pennsylvania. They experienced fatigue along with temperatures of 102 degrees, but didn’t fit the criteria of a temperature of 103 degrees to be tested for the virus.

In late March, he learned his 90-year-old grandfather in Yakima tested positive for COVID-19. He died in mid April.

“If this (vaccine) can cure this (disease) and help get us going back to normal a little bit faster or make it so this never happens again, I’m more than willing to help out,” Wurtz says. “If I can play any part in helping out in this (pandemic), that is what I’m going to do.”

The trial is expected to last 14 months with the vaccine slated for widespread use in approximately 12 to 18 months. Wurtz, a political consultant, will be paid $1,100 in the end. Meantime, he’s keeping a daily log of his temperature as well as any possible side effects. Scientists will take blood samples regularly to check the immune response.

“They definitely made it clear: ‘You’re the first humans to be trying this.’ That aspect is not lost on me,” Wurtz says. “This is a new approach to vaccines. It’s not like a traditional vaccine which has a little bit of the virus in it. You really trust that the scientists have done their homework. I don’t understand all of the science behind it, but I wanted to help and this is something I can do.”


By Adriana Janovich