By Dr. James E.K. Hildreth
For more than a century, African Americans and other minority groups have been left out of the conversation of healthcare, leading to years of misdiagnosis, mistrust and mistreatment. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this reality to the forefront as the virus continues to take a disproportionate toll on communities of color and Black Americans, in particular.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Through the COVID-19 vaccine program, we have the opportunity to change the course of history.
Unless diverse populations are represented in trials and simultaneously educated on vaccine program safety, the U.S. stands to spend billions of dollars on drugs that will fail to protect a large percentage of citizens. Discovering an answer to protecting our communities against COVID-19 would be a lifetime achievement for an infectious disease researcher like myself. But my greatest concern goes beyond this scientific achievement—it’s about finding a vaccine that is effective for Black citizens now and for my great-grandchildren generations to come. I believe this so fervently that I am stepping away from the bench and into the vaccine trial as a participant.
As a Black American, a career infectious disease researcher and President of Meharry Medical College here in Nashville, my life’s calling is centered around eradicating health disparities through research and public health advocacy. When Operation Warp Speed called on institutions researching HIV to pivot to the COVID-19 vaccine, I was honored to charge Meharry’s researchers with swiftly changing course.
COVID-19 may be novel, but threats to the vaccine’s viability for minority populations in America are far from new. A variety of social, environmental and system-level factors have caused health care disparities and negative health outcomes among these communities for decades. We are up against tired old patterns that – unless addressed broadly and quickly – stand to undermine the success of the entire vaccine program.
Pharmacogenetic research shows us that our genes determine how we react to drugs. Science points to the fact that racial, genetic, socioeconomic and environmental factors have an impact on vaccine success. Thus, to find a successful vaccine for all Americans, we must ensure that minority groups are adequately represented in every trial.
At Meharry, and in the Nashville community, I have dedicated myself to furthering research on COVID-19, while being an information source people can trust. We have two foes with this pandemic: the virus itself and the equally deadly pathogen of misinformation. We must defeat them simultaneously or risk losing the battle altogether.
In the Black community, this includes overcoming decades of earned mistrust of medical institutions and clinical trials. Incidents like the 40-year Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male – where hundreds of Black men were misled, resulting in death and other dire consequences – are impossible to forget. Add in lifetimes of inadequate or sub-par healthcare and systemic racism in the medical community, and you have a distrustful population.
That’s why, while Meharry strides in the race for a vaccine, I’m sidelining myself as a primary investigator to become a trial participant. I want my community to know that I trust my fellow scientists to protect my personal health while seeking answers for us all. I want my peers to know that I care more about finding the right vaccine that works for ALL people than discovering it myself. Ultimately, I want to be on the right side of history in this most historical moment.
Our children and grandchildren – and the generations after them – will remember 2020 for several reasons. While COVID will loom large in our collective memory, issues of inequality have also come to the forefront. To search for a vaccine without working to ensure its efficacy for all racial groups would be tone-deaf at best and negligent at worst.
The good news? This is not complicated. There are two steps – inform and include. Yes, there is considerable work, but with a concerted effort, we can get there together.
Interested participants can learn more about vaccine trials at Meharry Medical College and sign up to register here: www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org. Participants should include the Meharry Medical College Site Code “MEHA” at the end of the survey.
James E.K. Hildreth, PhD, MD, is President and CEO of Meharry Medical College. A renowned infectious disease specialist and researcher, Hildreth is also an integral part of the Metro Nashville Coronavirus Task Force.