COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Trials and the Reluctant Participation of Black Americans

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The coronavirus pandemic has been the most dominant news story of 2020 and arguably of the entire 21st century. After nearly an entire year of surging cases of infection, an astronomical amount of COVID-related deaths worldwide, economic downturn and general despair, the virus has compromised everyone’s quality of life in both quantifiable and unmeasurable ways.

The week of December 7 set a new record for COVID-19 related fatalities in the United States, with over 3,000 citizens dying in a single day, shattering the previous record of 2,885 a week prior. To put the single-day record in perspective, more people died from the coronavirus than on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet, in spite of all of the material and human loss caused by this public health crisis, scientists have seemed to expedite the timeline for virus protection.

A vaccine created by the Pfizer pharmaceutical company is on pace to be the first candidate to receive authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), allowing distribution to begin before the end of 2020. Millions of doses of the vaccine can potentially be administered before the Christmas holiday to those considered in the high risk or essential worker population.

The gift of some form of protection against this once-in-a-generation medical disaster feels like the early stages of escaping a horrific history. However, the news of a hurried vaccination is rightly met with skepticism by populations who have historically been used as guinea pigs in the name of medical breakthroughs. In America, those populations have largely been Black folks, which has caused the gratification of potential relief to be met with a lukewarm celebration, to say the least.

“I ain’t takin’ it, you takin it?”: Black skepticism of the coronavirus vaccine

As news of COVID-19 vaccination developments have become more of a rapidly approaching reality than the wishful thinking of an agonizing nation, I have been in a few conversations with [Black] friends and family members about the likelihood of them taking the vaccination in the earliest stages of its rollout. The consensus has been a resounding “no,” or “hell nah,” or “shit no!” Other comments have erred on the side of, “I need to see how white folks respond to it before I get it.”

My circle of Black loved ones is not exclusive in their trepidation around leading the line to the syringe. There’s data that points to the hesitancy being connected to cultural anxiety informed by history.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, only three percent of Black Americans surveyed indicated they would be a part of clinical vaccine trials. This is despite the fact that Black Americans account for 21 percent of COVID-19 related deaths while only accounting for roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population.

So, if the number of COVID-19 related deaths among Black Americans is disproportionate to the Black population in the United States, why are we so reluctant to take a vaccine that could mitigate the disease spread in our communities?

The simple answer is: we know this country.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information published an article in December 2018 titled “You don’t trust a government vaccine”: Narratives of Institutional Trust and Influenza Vaccination among African American and White Adults, which provides research that supports a lot of the suspicion Black Americans have around being an exploratory demographic for vaccination.

The following is an excerpt from the abstract section of their research:

Whites described implicit trust of federal institutions but questioned their competency. African Americans were less trusting of the government and were more likely to doubt its motives. Trust in institutions may be fragile, and once damaged, may take considerable time and effort to repair.”

Also, the role of history in their final results:

Discussions of medical racism centered on the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which ran from 1932–1972 and involved a cohort of African American men who were intentionally denied treatment for Syphilis, even after a safe and effective cure was made available (Jones, 1993). While participants talked about the Tuskegee study, we found that this discussion was typically tied to a larger context of injustices both past and present.”

These analyses were collected two years BEFORE Black Americans had to consider the risk factors of an unknown vaccination to combat a global health crisis. It is not that Black folks do not long to return to a sense of normalcy where we just have to deal with the public health crisis of systemic racism and other illnesses we are genetically predisposed to, it is the fact that part of our dehumanized existence in America has been intensified by the consequences of medical malpractice.

My personal take on vaccination

As someone who belongs to a compromised population due to illness, I am a proponent of a vaccination that can lessen my chances of being infected with the coronavirus. I have been super diligent about staying out of harm’s way, but that does not mean that I am immune to the carelessness of the outside world.

In other words, I need the reckless, non-socially distant unmasked folks out there to get at the front of the vaccination line so that I can have a better chance at avoiding the virus should I cross paths with them. I would also like to see a wide swath of unusual suspects like rich and powerful white men line up to be the earliest recipients of the vaccine, to take solace in its safety.

I hear the former presidents will take an injection in front of the public after the vaccine is officially approved. Let’s just hope they don’t give Barack a different batch. You won’t be able to get a nary Black person to take it if his dosage has a different impact than those other dudes.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.