For one notable contingent of Blacks, a recent polio outbreak in Sudan which the World Health Organization tied to an oral vaccine confirmed long-held apprehensions about the side effects of vaccines and what’s been criticized as an increasingly-longer, profit-driven immunization schedule.
Meanwhile, as members of the global medical community continue their efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, some local parents, like Najai Knox, have not only voiced fears about the dangers ahead for Blacks who participate in medical trials, but the potential erosion of civil liberties that could occur for those who refuse to be counted among the recipients of a yet-undiscovered, government-approved COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m directly taking on the teaching of past generations who told me about the Tuskegee syphilis, government-funded experiments that went on for years,” said Knox, a Southeast resident and mother in her reference to the U.S. Public Health Service’s deliberate and decades-long infection of Black sharecroppers with the disease in a study conducted at Tuskegee University.
Knox, a millennial and proponent of de-schooling who plans to raise her son outside of the public school system, said she predicted the insistence on vaccine development in the early days of the pandemic when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization that has sponsored the expansion of vaccines throughout the African continent, counted among other prominent groups on the front line of its development.
“I won’t be participating in COVID-19 vaccinations, but it looks like they’re going to make us do it in a forceful way,” Knox said. “If they can come to your door and make you take this vaccination, I have to worry about my grandmother and cousins and the repercussions of what the government has planned. These master wizards think they’re God [but] I know this will affect the people I love.”
The Race Continues for COVID-19 Vaccine
The severity of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 194,000 lives in the U.S. since March, has inspired a race for a vaccine that President Donald Trump promises will be available in October or no later than days just prior to the general election on Nov. 3. Trump’s assertion remains highly-contested by many public health officials who point to uncertainty related to both approval and distribution of a vaccine.
In addition, a major impediment in the COVID-19 vaccine’s development, researchers say, involves the dearth of Black vaccine trial participants – a challenge that has reportedly prevented some trials from moving to Phase 3. In response, Pfizer, currently testing a possible vaccine with a German laboratory, recently proposed increasing the sample size in its trials by 50 percent to include more people of color and test subjects as young as 16.
Even leaders at historically Black colleges and universities have joined in issuing the call for more Blacks to become medical trial volunteers. The presidents of Dillard and Xavier universities, both based in New Orleans, announced their participation in clinical COVID-19 vaccine trials in the Ochsner Health System located in Louisiana earlier this month, encouraging students, faculty members and alumni to follow suit.
But in an era where Blacks have become more aware of questionable, if not unethical and illegal medical research using Blacks as subjects – from Tuskegee to the unapproved use of Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells or shocking experiments performed by Dr. J. Marion Sims on Black women in his quest to advance modern gynecological knowledge and procedures – gaining the trust of Blacks will not come easily.
Mercedes Diane Griffin, a D.C.-based public health professional known for her ability to achieve greater Black participation in HIV drug trials, said allaying the fears of Blacks needed for COVID-19 trials requires both framing the pandemic within an international context and highlighting the discovery of successful vaccines secured in recent decades.
“We need Black people and because [researchers] are making this push to get more Blacks, people are afraid,” said Griffin, founder of the Mercedes Parra Foundation.
“The history is bad but we have to look at modern times,” she said, referring to efforts to development a drug to blunt the spread of HIV/AIDS. “The HIV vaccine was a game-changer because HIV affected Blacks at a rate higher than other groups. Vaccines don’t keep you from getting the illness but your chances of dying are significantly reduced, almost miniscule.”
Engaging African Americans in Dialogue
As of last Sunday, 35 COVID-19 vaccine trials now report having advanced to the human testing phase, including one scheduled to soon resume in the United Kingdom – interrupted after one volunteer suffered significant side effects.
In response to concerns about safety and speculation about the lengths to which Trump would go to win reelection, nine pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have signed a pledge saying they will not prematurely seek approval for a vaccine.
Consider what transpired when a guest appeared on the live-streamed show hosted by an emergency medicine physician and population health expert, Dr. Melissa Clarke, who has participated in a COVID-19 vaccine trial. Clarke, during the Aug. 31 segment, pointed to an uptick of what she described as polarizing, ill-informed anti-vaccine posts that continue to appear on social media platforms.
Her guest, a middle-aged African American man with preexisting conditions, spoke about his involvement in a vaccine trial at The George Washington University. A researcher from the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity also discussed his findings about how social media continues to be used to disseminate false information about vaccines.
“COVID-19 is killing African Americans disproportionately, compared to other populations, and if Americans choose not to take the vaccine, then that death gap will widen,” said Clarke, author of “Excuse Me, Doctor” and host of a weekly YouTube/Facebook show by the same name.
Clarke and others are scheduled to speak this week on Wednesday and Thursday during an event hosted by WHUR and the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 about Blacks’ anxieties about vaccines. The two-part series, “Making It Plain: African Americans and the COVID-19 Vaccine,” will air on WHUR 96.3 FM and stream online.
“It will be important for doctors and other medical professionals in our community to go over the real facts about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy,” Clarke said. “We don’t know that yet but when we have that information, it will inform our individual decisions about the vaccine – not our distrust or what we see on social media.”