It’s time we finally shatter the needle.
With COVID-19 likely to be a part of our lives forever, experts believe Americans will have to annually get vaccinated like many of us do for the flu. The only problem is that many Americans are tired of getting poked like a pin cushion or are afraid of getting a shot in the first place.
As the chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, I have worked over the past 18 months to engage 30,000 congregations on breaking down barriers to the vaccine. Despite this relentless work to instill confidence in its safety, the results have been frustrating: 47% of Black and brown Americans remain unvaccinated. It’s become clear that the needle — a symbol of pain, addiction and death in our community — is a root cause of this problem.
So as we move forward with COVID-19, it’s crucial the federal government empower the innovators seeking to increase our vaccination rates. One of the few good byproducts of this ugly time is the revolutionary research on new vaccine methods. In an era when we carry computers in our pockets and drive around in electric cars, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have vaccines in a pill.
The numbers are a sobering reminder that the shot is a common denominator in vaccine hesitancy. Lost in the misinformation and baseless conspiracy theories is the very real fear of needles, which one pre-pandemic study found stopped 16% of adults from getting a flu shot. Vaxart, the pharmaceutical company that specializes in pill-form vaccines, found that a quarter of Black Americans are terrified of getting a shot.
This fear doesn’t come from some unfounded superstition. Our country’s medical marvels often came at a cost to Black Americans. The words “Tuskegee Experiment” invoke the not-so-distant past in which Black men were the subject of deceptive, unethical medical tests. While decades have passed, the mistrust looms over many families.
While needle alternatives have been mulled for years, companies ramped up that research during the pandemic. Several entities have ramped up their research to address hesitancy and inequity. Options like that proposed by Vaxart are actively exploring a pill alternative that wouldn’t have to be stored at ultra-low temperatures like the current vaccines. If their trials are indeed successful, we can potentially expand access, enhance public trust around vaccines, and drive down transmission.
This could mean the world to Black Americans wary of a shot. Sixty-five percent of the Black Americans polled by Vaxart said they would get vaccinated through a pill instead of a needle. Through that method alone, that means potentially millions of more people vaccinated — ending this long era of suffering in our community.
Now, it is crucial the federal government put fresh resources behind this research. Congress has yet to move on the White House request to fund research into the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines. With cases rising once again and another variant surely around the corner, every stalled day is more lives put at risk.
When that money arrives — because it must — the Biden administration and Congress must explore options beyond those delivered through a needle. This pandemic has sparked such brilliant innovation in almost every facet of our lives that to halt this momentum would be a sin. The future is here — it’s time we live in it.
Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He also serves as chair of the Conference of National Black Churches and the National Action Network.