Donald Trump has politicized a potential COVID-19 vaccine by hinting there will be one before Election Day. But for Black people, who are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, there is no time to play politics with a pandemic that’s acting as the second blade of a double-edged sword already cutting very deep with racism.
That’s precisely why, researchers say, Black folks must be included in COVID-19 vaccine trials. And while in theory that sounds just fine, in practice that has been a bit harder to achieve with Black people’s historical mistrust among doctors, physicians and the entire American healthcare system.
In spite of that — or because of it — the Covid-19 Prevention Network, a group funded by the National Institutes of Health, on Tuesday launched a series of new commercials aimed at minorities and urging them to join the vaccine trials.
“When everything looks bleak, we know that someone somewhere is full of hope and strength and wants to take action,” says one ad, showing a series of Black people. “Walking the walk and rolling their sleeves to go to normal sooner.”
The ads shows Black and Latino people pointing to their upper arms, where an injection would be given, and then a nurse appears to roll down a Black man’s sleeve after giving him a shot. The ad ends with the website, preventCOVID.org, where people can sign up to join a trial.
A report published by the National Institutes of Health attributed part of Black folks’ mistrust of American medicine to “the historical legacy of mistreatment at the hands of the medical profession” along with “the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and current health disparities.”
A separate study called Color of Coronavirus by APM Research Lab concluded in June that Black people’s fear of clinical racism must be addressed in any coronavirus vaccine trial.
Specifically, scientists and medical experts say Black people’s involvement is critical particularly because of pharmacogenetics, or the science that studies how genetic factors affect reactions to drugs. This field of study shows that medicine can have varying effects based on race and genetic, socioeconomic, and environmental dynamics.
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 died 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 some 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,” Calethia Hodges, a Black clinician at Infinite Clinical Trials outside Atlanta, said. “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.”
“I say to my brothers and sisters in Africa…if they come up with a vaccine, be careful,” Farrakhan said before expanding his warning to include Black people in the United States, as well.
“Do not take their medications. We need to call a meeting of our skilled virologists, epidemiologists, and students of biology and chemistry,” Farrakhan implored. “We need to give ourselves something better. There are 14 therapies we can treat it with. The virus is a pestilence from Heaven. The only way to stop it is going to heaven.”
The Associated Press reported Monday that Black families prefer Black doctors. However, statistics show that “only 5% of doctors nationwide are Black, and only 2% are Black women.”
Nine pharmaceutical companies working to make a COVID-19 vaccine have signed a pledge to uphold “high ethical standards and sound scientific principles.” However, none of them made mention of any of the above concerns along racial lines.