After several months, social distancing, temperature checks, hand sanitizing, wearing masks, and spending weeks in quarantine have become normalized behavior in 2020. Next on that list will be the administering of a safe and effective vaccine that will immunize populations from COVID-19 and prevent any further deaths from the pandemic.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced earlier this week that Phase 3 of the clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine has just begun, but a vaccine is only effective if people actually agree to take it. African Americans have a hurtful and damaging history with the medical industry particularly when it comes to testing.
The painful memory of those 600 African American men in 1932 who were injected with syphilis as part of the “Tuskegee Experiment” is still an ever present footnote in our story. Completely unaware that they were being used as guinea pigs for a 40-year study, these men were largely left untreated in order to study how the Black population responded to the disease. The study was conducted by the United States Public Health Service.
Showing that nothing is off limits, the National Institutes of Health funded research to test AIDS drugs in the 1980s and 1990s on hundreds of infected poor, Black foster kids in New York City. The drugs often had horrible side effects in adults leaving these children with little advocacy for themselves. The story continues with everything from eugenics to the belief by white doctors that Black people experience pain differently, and as a result, do not require the medications that white patients do.
Detailing this unfortunate past, BET’s Marc Lamont Hill sat down with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the leading expert on COVID-19, to talk about where the Institute is in the development of a viable vaccine and how the Black population could ever trust this medication to be safe.
“We have a history that has gotten much, much better lately, in the last few decades, but a bad news history going back to things like Tuskegee,” said Fauci. “We have African Americans who have sickle cell disease who come into the emergency room in terrible pain. And, you know, there's sometimes a reluctance to give them the pain medication that they need. So those are the kinds of things that it's understandable why there's skepticism among African Americans regarding the typical classical medical establishment.”
Dr. Fauci goes on to explain that the NIH is now using a model he first created at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic where using community engagement and outreach and leveraging those relationships made all the difference in protecting vulnerable communities.
“We developed relationships with community reps who were trusted by the African American community, because they were reflecting the African American community. You want to go into the African American community with people who look and think and act like the people you're trying to convince. You get the community people on the ground to go in and say, ‘Hey, let me tell you, I've scoped this out. This is something for your own benefit’
Co-developed by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna, Inc., and the NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Fauci says that it will take several months and perhaps well into 2021 before they know if the vaccine actually works.
“We're trying to find out if it's safe and effective. We should know that by the end of this calendar year, sometime in November or so,” said Fauci who remains “cautiously optimistic,” that we will have a vaccine by the beginning of 2021.
The COVID-19 trials are expected to include some 30,000 volunteers whose tests are negative for COVID-19, according to the NIH.
Watch why Dr. Fauci believes it’s imperative that Black people are a part of those clinical trials and how accessible a vaccine will be to the Black community.
For the latest on the coronavirus, check out BET’s blog on the virus, and contact your local health department or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.