By Dr. Asefa Jejaw Mekonnen
As a physician of color, I am well aware of the history of scientific experimentation in the African American community. Tuskegee and the Henrietta Lacks experiments were inhumane and inconceivable by any measure. Continued structural racism in healthcare and the justice system have eroded trust, and is a catalyst for ongoing mistrust.
Unfortunately, it will take time and continued struggle to change this and establish social equality. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives at an alarming rate. We are still battling an unprecedented health care crisis. Black and brown communities have been affected the most. By now, we all know someone who has died due to COVID-19.
Because of unprecedented technological, scientific, and governmental collaboration — and a novel approach to vaccine development — we have made the most significant scientific achievement of the century with the COVID-19 vaccines, all in just 10 months.
I am a principal investigator for Moderna’s Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial being conducted at Meridian Clinical Research. I am a witness of the ethical and scientific integrity of the trial. I have campaigned to improve minority participation in the trial so we can have proportionate evidence that can be generalized to the greater population.
This trial has diverse participants. The trial data was reviewed by an independent scientific team to eliminate bias. The emergency approval process included experts from diverse ethnic groups, including prominent scientists like Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, a black immunologist. Efficacy and safety data were impressive, with more than 90% protection from severe COVID-19.
If our society does not get vaccinated, all the development efforts will not save lives, and we will not achieve a herd immunity on a meaningful timeline. The success of a vaccination program is in its coverage. Recent vaccination coverage data reported by Kaiser Health showed that as of January 14, 2021, in the 16 states where race was reported, African Americans were vaccinated at a much lower rate compared to Caucasians. This pattern repeats itself among healthcare workers, wherein the proportion of black healthcare workers ware fairly represented.
We must change this dynamic. Black healthcare workers and community leaders need to come to the fore to educate our society. We need to explain the COVID-19 vaccine development process and abolish any fear and uncertainty with clear scientific facts. We also need to improve access for high-risk people of color who must be vaccinated.
An email to the medical staff will not reach the ground floors of the hospital, where the porter or the environmental worker, who have been the backbone of the COVID -19 response, are located. We need a new method of communication regarding vaccine distribution. We no longer live in the past. Scientific integrity is very closely monitored and human subject protections are upheld. We must trust the science and roll up our sleeves for the vaccine. We can begin to control the pandemic and save lives.
Dr. Mekonnen is a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician based in Rockville, MD.