Since coronavirus began wreaking havoc in the United States, every corner of society has been affected. Schools, government institutions, and businesses of all sizes were forced to close their doors in March as social distancing went into effect. Since then, there have been 4.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States and approximately 160,000 deaths. Health outcomes of the virus based on race quickly became apparent, with Black people disproportionately dying from COVID-19.
Under Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership put in the place by the United States federal government, researchers are working at lightning speed to produce 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine by January 2021. In an exclusive interview with ESSENCE, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says it’s critical that Black people participate in clinical trials where these potential vaccines are being tested.
“We want to encourage the African American community to be part of the vaccine testing,” says Dr. Redfield. “If the African American community doesn’t take part in the research, we won’t have experience in this community that will reinforce the safety and efficacy for the future public.”
He also says the same is true for older patients and those with pre-existing conditions for which coronavirus is especially dangerous. “Normally in clinical trials, we don’t take older people like me or people with multiple medical conditions. But if we don’t include these people, we won’t know if the vaccine will be safe and effective on them.”
There are historical examples that prove why Black people signing up for clinical trials is so important. Dr. Redfield’s cautionary tale comes from the hepatitis C research that was done decades ago. “The original research which showed that Interferon worked [as a treatment] didn’t have any African-American patients in it. So after that drug was approved, [I started] using it on my patients in Baltimore. In African-American patients that had HIV, less than five percent of them didn’t respond to the drug. It didn’t work. Why did we go all the way to the point of producing a multi-million dollar drug and we never knew it didn’t work in the population most affected by hepatitis C? The clinical researchers didn’t put the energy into making sure African-Americans participated by rebuilding trust.”
He continues: “I was always very proud of the fact that in my [research programs], a majority of the volunteers were African American, and there were other institutions where that wasn’t the case. We had to work hard to build environments where people could trust us. If we wait until the vaccine is available to build trust, there will be a disproportionate number of African Americans who won’t get the vaccine.”
The consciousness [about Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks] is very much alive.
Dr. Leandris Liburd, Associate Director for the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, explains that the mistrust Black people have towards medical research comes from America’s shameful history of using Black bodies for experiments without their knowledge or consent – pointing specifically to the Tuskegee syphilis study and the Henrietta Lacks case.
“When I raise issues of Tuskegee and even this month, the 100th birthday of Henrietta Lacks, my colleagues say ‘that was a long time ago,'” says Dr. Liburd. “But they don’t realize that the consciousness about these incidents is very much alive. We have to come out of the gate acknowledging that history, assure people that’s no longer the kind of research we’re doing, and giving the community a chance to tell us what we can do to regain their trust. The participation of these trials is meant to add benefit, and we don’t want to not take advantage of it.”
There are a number of COVID-19 vaccine trials that are underway, and it’s not too late to get involved. The National Institute Of Health, LabCorp and Mayo Clinic are just a few of the many organizations where you can sign up to volunteer for clinical trials around the country or ask questions about the process.
Ultimately, Dr. Redfield says getting involved in clinical research is not only vital when it comes to coronavirus, but other diseases as well. It’s what needs to happen in order to close the gap in health disparities. “Don’t give up your right to access clinical research,” says Dr. Redfield. “It’s an impactful thing that affects health equity.”