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Two HBCU presidents joined the Covid-19 vaccine trials to emphasize the importance of black participation

Presidents Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University and Reynold Verret of Xavier University sent letters to their university communities earlier this month saying they had decided to participate in a phase 3 trial of a vaccine being developed by Pfizer.

“Overcoming the virus will require the availability of effective vaccines for all peoples in our communities, especially our black and brown neighbors,” they wrote.

“It is of the utmost importance that a significant number of black and brown subjects participate,” they wrote, “so that the effectiveness of these vaccines is included among the many different populations that make up this United States.”


Health experts have stressed the importance of a diverse pool of volunteers in Covid-19 vaccine studies, especially as the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

“I kept seeing all the articles that indicated we don’t have a good representation,” Kimbrough told CNN. “People say you don’t know if it works for all populations if you don’t have a robust sample.”

But the response was largely negative, he said, with some people likening him to a “lab rat”.

“I think the vast majority of people are skeptical,” he said.

He highlighted the distrust among some African Americans resulting from the Tuskegee syphilis study. Social media critics also cited the study, commonly known as the Tuskegee Experiment.
Beginning in the 1930s, it involved U.S. public health service physicians who deliberately left black men untreated for syphilis so they could study the course of the infection. They did this despite the fact that penicillin emerged in the course of the study as a viable and effective treatment.

Kimbrough and Verret recognized Tuskegee and other “unethical examples of medical research” in their letter – cases that had undermined “trust in health care workers and guardians” among African Americans.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that while black Americans face higher risks from Covid-19, they are more reluctant to trust medical experts and sign up for a potential vaccine.

In an interview on SiriusXM earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed that the skepticism of minority communities must be addressed with transparency. He also cited Tuskegee as a big reason for mistrust.

“The track record of how the government and medical investigators have treated the African American community is not something to be proud of,” he said.

‘I completely understand fear’

Kimbrough and Verret are not alone. When Dawn Baker, a black news host at CNN affiliate WTOC in Savannah, Georgia, said she joined the trial for a Moderna vaccine candidate, skeptics also raised the Tuskegee experiment.

One said Baker had “lost his mind”.

“I can’t fight (the story). I fully understand fear,” Baker told CNN’s Poppy Harlowe. But Baker has trusted her doctor for more than 30 years who asked her to attend.

“For me it was a wonderful opportunity to be part of the solution,” he said. “So I really feel that what needs to happen is that, before we get into these vaccine studies, you need to make an effort with the minority community to actually explain and acknowledge that there is a problem and what is going on.”

Verret agreed that Tuskegee and “many other similar events” needed to be acknowledged. But there are “people like me around the table,” he said, asking questions and reviewing processes.

Systemic racism exists in the United States, she told CNN’s Brianna Keilar.

“But at the same time, that shouldn’t stop us from making sure we have access to something that is needed to save our people’s lives, especially as African Americans and other people of color are dying and suffering from Covid-19 at disproportionate rates.” , Verret said.

Kimbrough said some backlash came from claims that their letter was a “warrant” when they just wanted their communities to “think about it”.

In a horrifying history of forced sterilization, some fear the United States is starting a new chapter

“But it’s hard to tell someone to think of something you’re not willing to do on your own,” he said.

Kimbrough had his first appointment with researchers on 25 August. He had to complete an orientation that explained the experimentation and each step. He was also given a Covid-19 test using a nasal swab. Then he was given an injection, but he doesn’t know if he received the vaccine candidate or a placebo.

Otherwise, once a week an app on Kimbrough’s phone asks him to complete a survey, specifying how he feels and if he has any symptoms. He came back for a second injection this week and will have to come back periodically.

But like Baker, Kimbrough is happy to do his part.

“I’m just tired of all this,” he said of the pandemic. “I’m ready to get back to a sense of normalcy and a vaccine will be part of that.”

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