Story at a glance

  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci recently called for more diverse representation of the population in the clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine.
  • Several current trials are seeking to diversify their testing but are having difficulty recruiting volunteers.
  • There is a long history of mistrust and mistreatment between Black and Indigenous people and the scientific community in the United States.

The closer scientists get to developing a coronavirus vaccine, the less people are willing to take it. And while Black and Indigenous Americans aren’t alone in their mistrust of scientific trials of vaccinations, they have a unique reason for it.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci recently called for a more diverse representation of the population in the clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines, noting the pandemic's disproportionate effects on non-white communities. Enrollment in Moderna’s clinical trial has been slowed by the lack of Black, Latino and Native American participants, and Pfizer is expanding its trial to recruit more diverse participants. 

There are practical barriers for non-white Americans to enroll in the vaccine trials, including a lack of access to informational resources on the trials and transportation to clinical sites. Matt Maxwell, the chief executive officer of Accel Clinical Services, told Quartz that this is the first time he's been instructed by pharmaceutical companies to enroll racially diverse participants.


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“These vaccine studies are the first time I’ve seen them requiring us to match our racial makeup to our county where we’re located,” he told Quartz. “It hasn’t been in the forefront of people’s minds because for us, patients are patients and it’s more about what medical condition you have.”

Even after testing, Black Americans were the least likely to say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine for COVID-19 if it were available today, according to a Pew Research Center poll last month. Hispanic Americans were only slightly more likely than white Americans to say they would take the vaccine, while Asian Americans (who were interviewed in English) were the most likely.

“Historically, we test everything in white men,” Nelson L. Michael, an infectious diseases expert and member of the vaccine development team at Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership set up by the White House, told the New York Times. “But the disease is coming after people of color, and we need to encourage them to volunteer because they have the highest burden of disease.”


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Another thing about that history: Black and Indigenous Americans have been mistreated and even abused by the scientific community, especially when it comes to medical testing, starting from the days of slavery. 

For the Black community, which is simultaneously fighting an epidemic of violence and police brutality, medical progress — such as the HeLa cell line taken from Henrietta Lacks — has cost them. Most famously, the 40-year-long U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis study, known more commonly as the Tuskegee study, withheld medical treatment from a group of poor black men with syphilis in Macon County, Ga. And while President Clinton finally apologized for the government's role in the study, which lasted from 1932 to 1972, it was too little, too late for some. 

Meanwhile, Native Americans, many of whom were killed by infectious diseases brought over by the first European settlers, have not forgotten the United States' failure to provide preventative medical care for tuberculosis and trachoma, even underreporting the death toll. 

“It’s not the science we distrust; it’s the scientists,” Jamil Bey, head of Pittsburgh nonprofit UrbanKind Institute, told the New York Times.  

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are seeking to address the concerns of these communities, however, and a panel of Black doctors is one of several groups vetting reviews of companies' vaccines. 

“We have concerns,” Leon McDougle, President of the National Medical Association, told MSNBC. “There’s been a cloud of political influence dating back to hydroxychloroquine...following that, convalescent plasma. We want to be that nonpartisan, independent voice, speaking to the African American community and our physicians of the National Medical Association.” 


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Published on Oct 13, 2020