A Black scientist who approved the coronavirus vaccine says it is 'nothing like Tuskegee' and people of color will not be 'guinea pigs'

·4 min read
  • Black Americans are less likely to get the coronavirus vaccine than white people, but are more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19.

  • Some are concerned about the speed of vaccine development. Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, a Black immunologist, explained how the process was safely expedited.

  • He also said the coronavirus vaccine is "nothing like Tuskegee" in part because Black scientists like him have been involved every step of the way.

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Pfizer Vaccine Transport

As the coronavirus vaccine is haphazardly distributed across the country, Black Americans are being left behind.

A Kaiser Health News analysis found that while Black Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, in some states their vaccination rates are two to three times lower than their white neighbors.

The gap is due in part to a long history of racial discrimination and mistreatment by the US healthcare system, which has contributed to mistrust in vaccines among people of color. In December, 35% of Black people said they probably or definitely wouldn't get the shot.

Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, a Black immunologist who serves on the FDA committee that authorized both Pfizer and Moderna's shots for emergency use in the US, understands why.

"How can we be confident that a vaccine that was developed so quickly is safe and effective?" he said people of color ask him, adding that they also "don't want to be the guinea pigs, they don't want to be experimented on as were the men in the Tuskegee experiment from many decades ago."

He addressed those concerns during Monday's Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Conclave, an online convening of more than 100 Black clergy, leading public-health officials, and corporate and scientific leaders who are working to boost COVID-19 testing and other resources in the Black community.

The doctor said there are three key reasons that explain the vaccine's speed of development, and many more why the coronavirus vaccine is "nothing like Tuskegee."

The vaccine was developed quickly due to technology, parallel processes, and existing infrastructure

Past vaccines have taken years to develop. After decades of global research, an HIV vaccine is still elusive.

But coronavirus vaccines have been developed in just 10 months, which "will go down probably as one of the greatest scientific achievements of this century," Hildreth, who's also the president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, said.

It was possible because "we have technologies available to us that just a few years ago were not even imaginable," he said. Plus, vaccines are typically developed iteratively, or with one step completed before the next begins. "In this case ... those [processes] have been running parallel," Hildreth said.

Finally, the worldwide infrastructure already in place for HIV vaccine development - including scientists and facilities - pivoted to focus on COVID-19, eliminating the need to develop a new one from the ground up.

The coronavirus vaccine is 'nothing like Tuskegee'

During the infamous Tuskegee experiment, US scientists monitored about 400 Black men with syphilis but did not treat them for the disease or even tell them they had it. The study lasted about four decades, according to a timeline from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ending in 1972.

Hildreth said the horror of Tuskegee prompted major changes in human research.

Today, institutional review boards approve research protocols before they can begin, data safety monitoring boards continuously watch data from ongoing trials to ensure they're safe, and advisory groups review the data before recommending vaccine approval.

Black people have been involved in it all, Hildreth said. "We have been involved in every phase of development, we're sitting on all sides of the table, and that alone makes this very different from the Tuskegee experiment."

He added that his university, a historically Black institution, is involved in vaccine trials and giving the vaccine to people in its community. "We would not risk our reputation as an institution if there was the least bit of concern that the vaccines were not safe."

Last, 10% of participants in the vaccine trials were Black, and 30% to 50% had underlying conditions like diabetes, asthma, obesity, and high blood pressure that disproportionately affect people of color. In all those groups, the vaccines were more than 90% effective.

"For all those reasons, I am convinced that this is a vaccine people of color must take," Hildreth said, "because otherwise, we're putting our lives and our communities at risk."

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