As the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of waning in the US, researchers are working to develop a vaccine at historic speed. President Donald Trump has pushed for a vaccine to become available by Election Day, now less than a month away, causing many Americans to worry that a vaccine will be approved too hastily.
Responding to these concerns, a taskforce of Black doctors has formed to independently vet COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The taskforce is organized by the National Medical Association, which was founded in 1895 to represent Black healthcare professionals at a time when organizations such as the American Medical Association restricted membership to white people.
“These questions of political influence on [the] scientific process because of Operation Warp Speed (OWS), have threatened the public trust in the FDA that will adversely affect participation in clinical trials, especially in the African-American community,” Leon McDougle, the president of the National Medical Association (NMA), wrote in a September 21 statement. The taskforce will evaluate COVID-19 vaccines and treatments that may be granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration and provide its own recommendations for physicians and the community.
Many Black people are wary of a medical system that has long exploited and neglected them. “When a vaccine is developed the issue is going to be around whether people will take it and feel that it’s safe,” says Darrell Gaskin, director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions in Baltimore. “Given that we’re not following the normal protocol for all sorts of reasons and then the controversy that’s surrounding it, we need to have people who are trusted involved in the development and at least testing of the vaccines.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately struck communities of color. This is partly because people in marginalized groups are more likely to live in crowded housing, have conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, and work frontline jobs that raise their risk of being exposed. Black Americans are less likely on average than other groups to have health insurance, yet are nearly three times as likely to be infected with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die as those who are white.
To ensure that any vaccine is safe and effective, it’s important that researchers test the drug in a diverse group that is representative of the general public. That means including people of all ages, genders, and races. “When you put a minimal number of African Americans in, you aren’t really able to see … what might be the case for, say, people who are on antihypertensive medication or people who have sickle cell [anemia] or any other condition that may be prevalent in the Black community,” says Vickie Mays, director of the UCLA Center for Research, Education, Training, and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities.
However, COVID-19 vaccine developers have struggled to recruit enough Black, Latino, and Native American volunteers. There are many reasons why Black people may hesitate to participate in vaccine trials. “The value of an African American as dispensable and damageable and okay to lose, kill, etcetera…is not something that is forgotten,” Mays says.
In the 19th century, gynecologist J. Marion Sims experimented on enslaved women while developing a treatment for fistulas. During the 20th century, researchers lied to hundreds of Black men and withheld treatment from them over decades in the Tuskegee syphilis study. In the present day, Black patients are still less likely than white ones to have their pain taken seriously by doctors and more likely to develop and die from complications related to pregnancy.
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Source: Popular Science