COVID-19 hits Black America hard, but HBCU chiefs find vaccine trial is hard to sell

Dillard and Xavier presidents get injections, ask their communities to follow suit

In this Sept. 3 photo, a "Black Lives Matter" sign is affixed to the fence outside Dillard University. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry / Louisiana Illuminator)

COVID-19 is known to have infected one of every 36 Black New Orleanians during the pandemic. There’s no way of knowing how many New Orleanians of any race have been infected, but those 6,601 confirmed cases that have been counted among Black people are 2.5 times more than the 2,594 cases that have been counted among White New Orleanians. 

Even more tragically, three times more Black New Orleanians have died of COVID-19.

It is in that context that the presidents of the two private Black universities in New Orleans made the following announcement Thursday:  “We, the Presidents of Dillard and Xavier are already participating in the Ochsner Medical System’s current vaccine trial,” Walter M. Kimbrough and C. Reynold Verret, wrote. “We appeal to the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Dillard, Xavier, and our sibling institutions to consider participating in this trial or others being conducted. The people and communities we serve look to us as an example. Our participation in such studies will help find ways to better fight the pandemic.”

On the phone Thursday,  Kimbrough imagined a worst-case scenario of a virus that has disproportionately killed Black people being followed by a vaccine that isn’t as effective for Black people. 

“That’s going to be scary,” he said. “I wanted to participate because I knew there weren’t enough of us in (the trials.)”

Federally funded medical research must include women and people of various races and ethnicities. But a history of being experimented on, lied to and exploited has resulted in Black Americans volunteering for clinical trials at a lower than average rate.

According to a May report from the Pew Research Center, Black Americans trust doctors less than their White counterparts, but they trust medical researchers a whole lot less, with only 53 percent expressing a positive opinion of people in that profession.

A Gallup poll conducted between July 20 and Aug. 2 asks about Americans’ willingness to take an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine. That poll doesn’t separate Black Americans from the general pool of folks listed as “non-White,” but it does find that 67 percent of White Americans say they’d take a vaccine and only 59 percent of others do.  

And, to be clear, pollsters didn’t ask people if they’d take a vaccine that’s being tested. They asked if they’d take one that’s been government approved. 

One cannot talk about Black Americans’ suspicions of medical research without addressing the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which ran from 1932 to 1972. The federal government spent decades withholding penicillin from Black men with syphilis because officials wanted to observe the effects of the untreated disease. The Tuskegee story looms large in Black people’s collective memory.  

However, a 2010 article in the Journal of Healthcare for Poor and Underserved called “More than Tuskegee: Understanding Mistrust about Research Participation” argues that it’s not 40 years of experimentation and exploitation that’s made Black people wary of medical scientists, but 400 years of it. One particularly disgusting example is James Marion Sims, the so-called “father of modern gynecology” who perfected his surgical techniques by operating on enslaved women he didn’t bother to anesthetize. But, as the authors of “More than Tuskegee” point out, Black Americans never have to reach as far back as Tuskegee to find a disturbing story involving medical professionals and Black patients.

Kimbrough and Verret promoted a trial run by Ochsner about 24 hours after ProPublica reported that Ochsner sent some patients home to die of COVID-19 when their families and outside medical experts believed they could have benefited from more treatment. According to that report, Ochsner only sent Black COVID-19 patients home to die. Ochsner denies it treated Black patients differently.

On Thursday and Friday, Black people on social media seemed to be soundly rejecting the call from Kimbrough and Verret that they sign up to test the vaccine. The presidents’ acknowledgement of the horrors of Tuskegee and their mention that the lead researchers in the Ochsner study are Black and Hispanic seemed to have no effect.

People seem to find the idea of signing to test a vaccine absurd on its face.

It’s always better to question racism than people’s response to racism, and we should acknowledge that Black people’s elevated distrust of the medical establishment is such a response.

But is it the best one? What are Black people to do when they’re being disproportionately harmed by a disease but afraid of the people, the health care systems and the government officials who promise to help them find a cure?

We don’t need any more proof that COVID-19 kills. Do we shrug and accept its wrath because the medical establishment has been and continues to harm us more than it harms others?

It seems important to remember that every vaccine that Black people have ever taken was manufactured during a time when there was racism — both inside and outside the medical establishment.  

When we talked Thursday, Kimbrough said he hadn’t heard about ProPublica’s report on Ochsner, but he acknowledged that the fear and suspicion of medical research runs deep in the Black community and that faith in the medical establishment “doesn’t exist.” 

Some people, he said, seemed to be responding to the request that students participate as an order that they participate. “You see people saying, ‘I don’t want to do this. Y’all shouldn’t be telling people to do that,’” Kimbrough said. “It’s completely optional.”

But, he emphasized, “We need to have a representative sample.” He used himself as an example. “Black people are overrepresented for people who have sickle cell anemia. I have the sickle cell trait. So how does that impact (the vaccine’s efficacy)? Does it not work for people with the sickle cell trait? They need to know those kinds of things.”

Kimbrough said he was already inclined to participate in a vaccine trial but didn’t sign up until Verret, a chemistry and immunology scholar, suggested he enroll. In a separate interview, Verret said, “We both understand that there’s something about preaching by example.” 

Generations of Black doctors and pharmacists got their start at Xavier, but Verret said the school doesn’t just impart technical knowledge. “I think our students understand that no matter what they’re learning, whether it’s as a chemist, as a scientist, a teacher, it will only come to fruition when you put it into service to someone else.”

Unlike the Tuskegee Experiment, Verret said, now “there are people in the room like us making decisions on human subject issues.”  As the Tennessee Lookout reported last month, Meharry Medical College, the first Black medical school in the South, plans to enroll more than 300 volunteers for a vaccine study. Dr. James Hildreth then that the school’s focus will be to encourage and enroll as many minority individuals as possible “because we have just got to know that the vaccine works in that group.”

Verret used the analogy of a street where pedestrians are getting killed trying to cross. “Then we put up a traffic light. Should I never cross that street again? No, I will put safety precautions to make sure that street is crossable.”

We typically have two courses of action regarding viruses. We can let them run their course or we can avoid them. As COVID-19 runs its course, it has the potential to kill. So as Kimbrough sees it, either we get a vaccine or we continue to suffer and die.

“COVID’s not going anywhere,” Kimbrough said. “It’s going to be around, so you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do. You just gonna hide from it?”