Is it safe to participate in a COVID-19 clinical trial? How can we be sure that all groups are represented in vaccine research? And will there be equitable distribution once the vaccine is available? These were some of the topics and questions addressed Jan. 22 during the virtual event, Faith, Science, and Trust: African American Clergy & Community Conversation on COVID-19.
During the event, “America’s Doctor” Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, joined several faith-based leaders and COVID-19 vaccine research volunteers from the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area for an open discussion about COVID-19 vaccine research.
The virtual event was organized through the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), in partnership with Sisters Together and Reaching, Inc., and the University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity. More than 2,000 people tuned in over Zoom and Facebook Live to listen to the open and honest discussion about medical research, past and present mistakes, and how researchers can establish trust.
At the beginning of discussion, Fauci made sure to address the long history of systemic racism that has existed in medical research, specifically mentioning the Tuskegee Institute syphilis study, discriminatory practices in polio vaccine delivery, and the medical research conducted on genetic material taken from Henrietta Lacks.
“It is understandable whenever we hear that there's hesitancy on the part of Brown and Black people to participate in clinical trials because of historical issues that can't go away,” he said. “That is the history of how the federal government has treated Brown and Black people for decades. We respect your hesitancy, and we respect the fact that you have some doubt about what is going on with vaccine research.
“What is important to remember is that although those things did happen, there are now safeguards in place [to make sure] that they won’t happen again, so hopefully we can work together and get beyond these concerns.”
Fauci implored the Baltimore faith leaders to encourage minority communities in the city to participate in clinical vaccine trials to help create equal representation in the medical research.
“We need your help, and that’s why I am here today,” said Fauci. “It is very painful to see a community suffering so disproportionately from a disease in which there is help at hand. That's why we really need to partner together to make sure that if there's anything that we need to do [for you and your communities], we address that.
“We have the opportunity for more people to get involved in a clinical trial and prove that it's safe and effective in Brown and Black people. You have to balance putting aside the skepticism you have about getting into a trial to say, ‘I want to be represented in a trial because I want the data to apply to me, to my family, and to my community.’”
Two of the event's panelists, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, PhD, MA, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and Janice Jackson, MM, a professor at UMBC, recently participated in a vaccine trial. Jackson explained her personal reasons for wanting to participate in the study.
“We have lost 400,000-plus people, including two from my own family,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger, where people that look like me can see that I participated. These vaccination trials are safe, thorough, and thoughtful, and I feel honored and privileged to have the opportunity to participate in this discussion about them.”
Fauci also talked about plans that he has discussed with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris that will address the needs of communities without readily available access to the internet, health care, and other important resources.
“There are going to be community vaccine centers opening up all over the country, including in areas that serve minority communities,” he said. “And there are going to be mobile units that will go out into those hard-to-reach areas. It is all part of a very comprehensive plan that President Biden and my team have put together.”
In addition to the effort from the federal government, E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, the executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and dean of UMSOM, offered to connect the faith leaders with COVID-19 experts from UMSOM. That way, the experts could go into the community to directly answer questions and provide essential information about the pandemic and the vaccine.
Leaders from UMB and the Baltimore community hope to have more candid conversations about COVID-19 research in the future.
“This is not a one-and-done,” said moderator Rev. Debra Hickman of the City Temple of Baltimore. “This is just the beginning of an ongoing, open dialogue with the community.”
(View the entire program in the video above.)