Medical experts are urging the involvement of Black people for vaccine trials against the coronavirus, saying it’s crucial to a community already gravely impacted by the virus.
More than 116,000 lives in the United States have been lost from the coronavirus and a quarter of these losses were Black people, according to a study called Color of Coronavirus by APM Research Lab.
Now that scientists and medical experts are in a rush to find an adequate response to COVID-19, they say Black people’s involvement is critical, particularly because of pharmacogenetics, or the science that studies how genetic factors affect reactions to drugs. According to NBC News, this field of study shows that medicine can have varying effects based on race and genetic, socioeconomic, and environmental dynamics.
In other words, a vaccine might not be useful to Black people if Black people don’t participate in the clinical trials to create the drug.
Persuading Black folks to participate could be challenging, however, considering the racist histories of Black people being used as testing sites for experiments.
For example, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male involved infected Black men being solicited for a 40-year study (1932 to 1972) to treat syphilis with penicillin. They were offered free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance.
However, they were not provided with the drug, and 28 of the original 399 Black men died of syphilis, 100 passed away from related complications, 40 of their wives were infected, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.
Such a horrific outcome has caused doctors to understand Black people’s wariness in participating in COVID-19 vaccine trials.
“The reasons I hear African Americans will not participate are heartbreaking and disappointing,” said Calethia Hodges, a Black clinician at Infinite Clinical Trials outside Atlanta. “I have heard about the Tuskegee experiment a lot. And I have heard ‘They [doctors] will give me the virus.’ And ‘They will put a chip inside me.’ Many say their parents raised them ‘to never participate in medical research.’ It’s all tough to overcome.”
Dr. Larry Graham, a retired pulmonologist, also understands the lack of trust from Black people, however, he says it’s crucial that people overcome it.
“Genetics related to racial differences make it essential that we be involved in broad-based and diverse clinical trials of medications and vaccines,” he said. “The expanding discipline of pharmacogenetics has taught us that we may respond differently than other races to both medicines and vaccines. We must be sure it works in Black folks. This can only be determined by our inclusion in the research-based trials of such vaccines.”
Dr. Aletha Maybank, the American Medical Association’s chief equity officer and group vice president of its Center for Health Equity, is calling out institutions on how they connect with Black people.
“I worry about exploitation and medicines being used on patients without their knowledge or consent,” Maybank, a Black woman, said.
Maybank went on to say that building trust is key to getting Black people to participate in clinical trials.
“With any relationship, you build it,” she said. “Folks doing work from leading institutions have asked, ‘How do we build trust?’ Well, it’s not rocket science. It’s about building relationships. Are you getting to know me beforehand? Are you speaking in a language I understand? Are the concepts broken down so that they are digestible? Are you present? Are you giving resources to our neighborhoods beforehand? That’s not rocket science. It’s building a relationship. That’s how you build trust. And trust is a fundamental value in humans. There’s no rocket science behind it.”
Hodges says that it also helps that she’s also a Black woman.
“They see me and give me a chance to at least share my information with them,” Hodges said.
Dr. John Maupin, the former president of Meharry Medical College and Morehouse School of Medicine, said a group of historically Black colleges and universities that focus on public health are planning a consortium that will focus on “culturally sensitive care.”
“The problem is: Do I trust them? That’s why the ability for a Morehouse and Meharry to have a clinical research center is vital,” he said. “It will allow Black people to come.”
“We have to have more [HBCUs conducting trials] because people will trust them more than they will some other institutions,” he continued. “I’m not saying all are untrustworthy. I’m saying there would be greater trust in institutions led by those who come from the patients’ backgrounds.”
Hodge’s ended by saying that he takes things a step further and tells patients, “they have a chance to take a drug that not only could help them, but could be very important to the next generation.”