(CNN) – Hoping to encourage other African Americans, the presidents of two historically Black colleges announced they were participating in a COVID vaccine trial to ensure that an eventual vaccine has been tested on — and is effective for Black people.
Instead, they were met with widespread skepticism.
The United States has a history of unethical medical experiments on Black people. The distrust among some African Americans stemming from the Tuskegee syphilis study. Critics on social media also cited the study, commonly known as the Tuskegee Experiment.
Presidents Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University and Reynold Verret of Xavier University sent letters to their university communities earlier this month saying they decided to participate in a Phase 3 trial of a vaccine in development by Pfizer.
“Overcoming the virus will require the availability of vaccines effective for all peoples in our communities, especially our black and brown neighbors,” they wrote.
“It is of the utmost importance that a significant number of black and brown subjects participate,” they wrote, “so that the effectiveness of these vaccines be understood across the many diverse populations that comprise these United States.”
Health experts have stressed the importance of a diverse pool of volunteers in COVID-19 vaccine trials, especially because the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color.
“I just kept seeing all of the articles that indicated we don’t have good representation,” Kimbrough told CNN. “People are making the case that you don’t know if it works for all populations if you don’t have a robust sample.”
But the response has been largely negative, he said, with some people comparing him to a “lab rat.”
“I think overwhelmingly people are skeptical,” he said.
Beginning in the 1930s, doctors involved with the US Public Health Service deliberately left Black men untreated for syphilis so they could study the course of the infection. They did this even though penicillin emerged during the course of the study as a viable and effective treatment.
Kimbrough and Verret acknowledged Tuskegee and other “unethical examples of medical research” in their letter — instances that had undermined “trust in health providers and caretakers” among African Americans.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that while Black Americans face higher risks from COVID-19, they’re more hesitant to trust medical experts and sign up for a potential vaccine.
In an interview on SiriusXM earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed that skepticism from minority communities needed to be met with transparency. He also cited Tuskegee as a big reason for the distrust.
“The track record of how government and medical experimenters have treated the African American community is not something to be proud of,” he said.
‘I completely understand the fear’
Kimbrough and Verret are not alone. When Dawn Baker, a Black news anchor at CNN affiliate WTOC in Savannah, Georgia, said she joined the trial for a Moderna vaccine candidate, skeptics also brought up the Tuskegee experiment.
One said Baker had “lost her mind.”
“I can’t fight (the history). I completely understand the fear,” Baker told CNN’s Poppy Harlowe. But Baker trusted her doctor of more than 30 years who asked her to participate.
“To me it was a wonderful opportunity to be a part of the solution,” she said. “So I just really feel that what needs to happen is, before we get into these vaccine studies, there needs to be some effort made with the minority community to actually explain and acknowledge there is a problem and what’s going on there.”
Verret agreed that Tuskegee and “many other similar events” needed to be acknowledged. But there are “people like myself around the table,” he said, who are asking questions and vetting the trials.
Systemic racism exists in the US, he told CNN’s Brianna Keilar.
“But at the same time, that should not preclude us from making sure that we have access to something that is necessary to save the lives of our people, especially given that African Americans and other people of color are dying and suffering from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates,” Verret said.
Kimbrough said some backlash has stemmed from claims that their letter was a “mandate,” when they only wanted their communities to “just think about it.”
“But it’s hard to tell somebody to think about something you’re not willing to do yourself,” he said.
Kimbrough had his first appointment with researchers on August 25. He had to complete an orientation explaining the trial and each step. He was also given a COVID-19 test using a nasal swab. Then he was given an injection — but he doesn’t know if he received the vaccine candidate or a placebo.
Otherwise, once a week an app on Kimbrough’s phone asks him to complete a survey, detailing how he feels and whether he as any symptoms. He went back for a second injection this week, and will have to go back periodically.
But like Baker, Kimbrough is glad to be doing his part.
“I’m just tired of all this,” he said of the pandemic. “I’m ready to get back to some sense of normalcy and a vaccine will be part of that.”
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