Presidents Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University and Reynold Verret of Xavier University sent letters to their university communities earlier this month, saying they had decided to participate in a Phase 3 trial of a vaccine in development by Pfizer.
“Beating the virus will require the availability of effective vaccines for all people in our communities, especially our black and brown neighbors,” they wrote.
“I kept seeing all of the articles that said we don’t have good representation,” Kimbrough told CNN. “People argue that you don’t know if it works for all populations if you don’t have a solid sample. ”
But the response was largely no, he said, with some people likening him to a “lab rat.”
“I think a very large majority of people are skeptical,” he said.
He pointed to the mistrust of some African Americans stemming from Tuskegee’s study of syphilis. Critics on social media also cited the study, commonly known as the Tuskegee Experiment.
Beginning in the 1930s, he involved doctors from the US Public Health Service, deliberately leaving black men untreated for syphilis so they could study the course of the infection. They did so despite the fact that penicillin emerged during the study as a viable and effective treatment.
Kimbrough and Verret acknowledged Tuskegee and other “unethical examples of medical research” in their letter – examples that had undermined “trust in health care providers and gatekeepers” among African Americans .
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that while black Americans are at higher risk of Covid-19, they are more reluctant 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 should be greeted with transparency. He also cited Tuskegee as a big reason for the mistrust.
“The record of how the government and medical experimenters have treated the African American community is not something to be proud of,” he said.
‘I fully understand the fear’
Kimbrough and Verret are not alone. When Dawn Baker, a black presenter at CNN’s WTOC affiliate in Savannah, Georgia, said she had joined the trial of a Moderna vaccine candidate, skeptics also referred to the Tuskegee experience.
One of them said that Baker had “lost his mind”.
“I can’t fight (the story). I fully understand the fear, ”Baker told CNN’s Poppy Harlowe. But Baker trusted his 30-year-old doctor who asked him to participate.
“For me it was a wonderful opportunity to be part of the solution,” she said. “So I really think what has to happen is that before you start these vaccine studies, you have to make an effort with the minority community to explain and recognize that there is a problem and what is happening. going over there. ”
Verret agreed that Tuskegee and “many other similar events” must be recognized. But there are “people like me around the table,” he said, asking questions and reviewing the trials.
Systemic racism exists in the United States, he told CNN’s Brianna Keilar.
“But at the same time, that shouldn’t stop us from making sure we have access to something that is necessary to save the lives of our people, especially as African Americans and other people of color die. and suffer from Covid-19. at disproportionate rates, ”Verret said.
Kimbrough said some backlash came from claims that their letter was a “mandate” when they only wanted their communities to “think about it.”
“But it’s hard to tell someone to think of something that you’re not ready to do on your own,” he said.
Kimbrough had her first date with researchers on August 25. He had to follow an orientation explaining the trial and each step. He also underwent a Covid-19 test using a nasal swab. Then he received an injection – but he doesn’t know if he received the candidate vaccine or a placebo.
Otherwise, once a week, an app on Kimbrough’s phone asks him to take a survey, detailing how he’s feeling and if he’s showing symptoms. He returned for a second injection this week and will need to come back periodically.
But like Baker, Kimbrough is happy to do his part.
“I’m just tired of it all,” he said of the pandemic. “I am ready to regain a certain sense of normalcy and a vaccine will be part of that. “