Vaccine Trials (and Tribulations)

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I watch and listen to a lot of cable news. A LOT. And all during the coronavirus pandemic I have been interested in how we would get past it. We will need a vaccine, as most of the cable doctors agree the virus is not leaving anytime soon.

As the vaccine development progressed, I kept hearing about the lack of diversity in the test subjects. Simply put, for a virus that overwhelmingly impacts Black and Latinx people negatively, a vaccine was being developed without testing enough of us to make sure it works for us (and safely).

I told my wife one day that I think I want to participate in a trial. I was thinking out loud, and then went about my routine.

Maybe I was inspired by Dawn Baker, a Black news anchor at CNN affiliate WTOC in Savannah, Georgia, who was “the first volunteer to receive an injection in the first Phase 3 clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine in the United States.”

Around August 14th, I received a call from Dr. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University. He let me know he was participating in a vaccine trial and asked me if I wanted to do so. We could then encourage others to consider participating.

That was the push I needed. He had the scientists doing the study contact me that day, and within 10 days I started the program. On August 25th I tweeted after the 3 hour orientation that I was now participating.

Most of the time was spent going through a well done interactive video explaining the test and all related matters. Of course they took medical history, as well as basic vitals. There is a 50% chance that I have portions of the vaccine (it isn’t the full vaccine), and a 50% chance I have a saline placebo. They have to study people with the vaccine prototype and without at the same time.

Once I was in the study we released a letter to our communities to raise awareness. As I was reminded, many people don’t fully read, or read what they want to read. But the shorter letter is this.

Researchers need Black folks in the vaccine trial.

We are participating.

We realize Black folks don’t trust research because of the Tuskegee experiment and similar atrocities.

But consider participating.

A lot of people read this:

You’re using our kids as lab rats.

The government harms people like the way they injected people with syphilis at Tuskegee.

You must have gotten paid to do it.

Is the money for the school worth it?

Honestly, I was surprised by some of the pushback. Even medical professionals, people who have to use research to treat patients, people who give prescriptions for drugs, were against the letter. It has been really enlightening.

Most of the concern is that we included students in the message (along with faculty, staff, alumni, and other institutions, which is a larger group than students). One person told me that students would be inclined to follow me and participate. I really appreciate the vote of confidence but 16 years of being a president has taught me that students do what they want to do (Bill Coplin’s book, “The Happy Professor” breaks this down exceptionally well as he discusses andragogy.)

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I strongly encourage students (not simply consider) to complete at least 15 hours a term and limit DWIs (drops, withdrawals, incompletes), to seek more internships instead of jobs, to apply for outside scholarships, and even ask freshmen to do one on one meetings with me, yet the majority don’t. Any Dillard student can tell you I FLOOD their e-mail (and my social media) with opportunities, and yet many come and go with no one participating. So anyone thinking that students are going to run out and participate in a vaccine trial that may last 26 months is badly mistaken!

But I understand the concerns. That’s part of the reason why we both are participating because it didn’t make sense to ask people to do something we were not willing to do ourselves (and some cynics even questions that!)

Being part of the Ochsner study also turned out to be a red flag for some after a recent story indicated that terminally ill COVID patients were sent home to die. In normal circumstances many people choose this option, but with a contagious disease that people are not trained to handle it probably wasn’t a great idea. It just added an additional layer of mistrust at least for this particular study.

There are, however, African Americans involved in this work. Dr. James Hildreth is president of Meharry Medical College and a leading immunologist. He fully understands the complexity of the issue, and knows there must be diverse participants in the vaccine trials.

In fact, Meharry is conducting vaccine trials, and soon expect to hear more HBCU medical schools announce they are doing the same. The hope is that Black institutions will have a greater level of trust with the community which will encourage participation.

I’ve done a number of media spots to discuss it. I’m not sure I’m convincing though LOL! Most people are still like, “Hell no!” And that is fine. I do hope that we will cause someone to think about participating. I’ve received a couple of calls to that effect. Even with the disagreements, the letter has provided an opportunity for awareness. Just like this woman in Atlanta who heard Dr. Fauci talk about it, maybe some people locally who are in good health will also consider it.

Again, to be clear, we intentionally used the word consider — twice. It is defined as:

To think carefully about (something), typically before making a decision.

Participating in a vaccine trial should be a deliberative, thoughtful decision. It is definitely not something to jump in to haphazardly, and is not for everyone. But we do need a diverse group of people participating so we know that a vaccine will work.

This Labor Day weekend, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, from 7 am to 7 pm a team of about 7 Latinx men and women have been replacing the roof at the President’s House. 90+ degrees means no masks, and while they can spread out to do most of the work they were in close proximity many times. On Saturday the water pressure dropped, and for a few hours Saturday, and about five hours on Sunday, a team of about 10 Black men from the Sewerage and Water Board made the repairs. Again, too hot for masks, lots of working in close quarters in a hole in the ground.

They represent the racial groups that are disproportionately impacted by the virus. They don’t have jobs like mine where they can telework. And we all expect these folks to work, damn the virus. We were without water for a little over a day which was inconvenient. But no one would accept going without water until COVID goes away in order to keep the workers safe. Most would raise hell if it was just a few days, not months.

The people working at the house need a vaccine. The least I could do is offer myself as part of the Phase 3 trial to help ensure whatever they develop with work for Black folks. I simply want others to think about it too.

That’s my ministry; it may not be yours. But you do have one…

The Prez

Written by

7th president of Dillard University

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