Coronavirus vaccine trials still struggling for diversity

Posted at 12:49 PM, Sep 18, 2020

CHICAGO -- Right now, nine COVID-19 vaccines are in or near a large-scale human trial phase. But enrollment of minorities in the trials remains a challenge. This is despite a disproportionate number of African-Americans impacted by the coronavirus.

Earlier this month, ads from the National Institutes of Health began airing asking Black people and Latinos to volunteer for the coronavirus vaccine trials.

“Operation Warp Speed” may be moving quickly, but pharmaceutical companies are having a difficult time getting Black and brown participants.

“What we really bring to the table is moral persuasion and encouraging our population to participate in safe and ethical clinical trials,” said Reverend Anthony Evans, the president of the National Black Church Initiative.

Over the past 15 years, they’ve worked with the pharmaceutical industry to boost Black representation in more than a dozen previous clinical trials.

“I think that we can be a major help to both the government and the pharmaceutical industry if they use us,” said Evans.

The Black community has been hesitant to take part in medical research and clinical trials because of a history of past abuse.

Most infamously, the 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that used Black men to study what happened when the disease went untreated.

“They were just basically experimented on without their knowing about it or their understanding what was happening. And a lot of people had very bad outcomes because of this,” said Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist at University of Chicago Medicine.

A recent Pew study found that Black Americans are still more skeptical of experimental treatments and a potential COVID-19 vaccine than Hispanic and white adults.

Add to that, most of the current trials are recruiting mainly online, something experts say often results in mostly white people enrolling.

“We will know more and be able to do a better job in caring for our friends and patients of color if we have more participation in these trials,” said Landon.

Moderna had to delay trials because of a lack of diversity. As of earlier this week, 13% of Moderna’s enrollment volunteers were Black and 51% white. At the same time, only 8% of Pfizers volunteers are Black and 75% white.

“They are going to have a significant shortfall of data when it comes down to African Americans and other groups, especially Latinos, and simply because they have not made the efforts,” said Evans.

In the end, the vaccine must be at least 50% effective to receive FDA approval. Without a diverse group of volunteers, experts say it could be difficult to know just how safe and effective the vaccine actually is across races.