This week Johnson & Johnson became the fourth U.S. drugmaker to enter phase III clinical trials for its COVID-19 vaccine, putting the nation one step closer to a solution. But as scientists focus on clearing safety trials, Black physicians are forming a task force aimed at reducing vaccine hesitancy in the Black community — and prioritizing a group that the medical world has often ignored.
The task force was born out of the National Medical Association (NMA), an organization started by Black physicians in 1895 in response to the American Medical Association’s refusal to grant admission to nonwhite doctors. Since then, the advocacy organization has grown to include more than 30,000 Black physicians, as well as their patients, nationwide.
In a statement posted on Twitter, NMA president Leon McDougle described the impetus for the task force as concern and “serious questions” about Operation Warp Speed, President Trump’s vaccine strategy. Specifically, McDougle expressed worry that the Food and Drug Administration has recently been swayed by “political influence,” citing the organization’s emergency use authorization (EUA) of hydroxychloroquine as an example. The drug, which President Trump deemed a “miracle,” has been largely abandoned by the scientific community after being found ineffective at treating COVID-19 as well as potentially deadly.
“These questions of political influence on the scientific process because of Operation Warp Speed have threatened the public trust in the FDA that will adversely affect participation in clinical trials, especially in the African-American community,” McDougle’s statement reads.
In response to a request for comment on the NMA’s allegations, an FDA spokesperson directed Yahoo Life to FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn’s congressional testimony this week on the organization’s response to COVID-19. Hahn’s testimony did not address the EUA of hydroxychloroquine (which was revoked by the FDA in June), nor concerns about growing distrust, stating only that the FDA had “intercepted a bulk shipment of hydroxychloroquine coming from China” in April. Hahn did note that the organization is focused on “facilitating expedited vaccine development” and doing so “without sacrificing our standards for quality, safety and effectiveness.”
Growing concerns around vaccine safety and the fast-tracking of a vaccine to benefit the November presidential election led nine pharmaceutical companies earlier this month to pledge they will “stand with science” to ensure any vaccine is safe for the public.
Concerns about acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine in the Black community, a group disproportionately affected by the pandemic, are warranted. Studies have shown that Black people are more likely to distrust the medical community and experience hesitancy surrounding vaccines, both of which have been linked to centuries of racism and discrimination in the medical world — many of which still persist today.
In an earlier interview with Yahoo Life, Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, elaborated on the issue. “Vaccine hesitancy in the African-American community has a very specific shape to it because there is a past in the U.S. of experimentation on the bodies of Black men and women,” said Schoch-Spana. “People are very cognizant of that in the community. But this isn’t just about the so-called past, it’s also about the present.”
It’s for these reasons that Dr. Uché Blackstock, Advancing Health Equity CEO and Yahoo Life medical contributor, says the NMA’s task force is vital. “It’s important for trusted leaders within the community to be the ones to talk about messaging and outreach around the vaccine,” says Blackstock. “What we’ve seen since March in terms of political interference has been absolutely horrifying, and I think increasingly the trust in the FDA and CDC is nonexistent. So we need an organization like the NMA, led by Black physicians, to take the lead.”
Blackstock, who runs an organization aimed at addressing racism in the medical world, says studies have shown that a shared racial identity is beneficial when it comes to medical decisions. “The data that we know about racial concordance in physician-patient relationships shows that it leads to improved patient outcomes,” says Blackstock. “And I know anecdotally that Black patients — including myself — we look for Black physicians because we know that having Black physicians does improve health outcomes. So to have this organization of Black physicians vetting the data and giving recommendations, I think that community members will take that information more seriously and more to heart when making their decisions.”
On top of building trust once the vaccine is approved, she underscores the importance of having Black individuals actually enrolled in clinical trials, which may lay the groundwork for acceptance. But while she’s seen companies like Pfizer and Moderna — two other frontrunners in the race for a vaccine — try to “make efforts to connect” with communities of color, she implies that the problem is bigger than a one-time social media campaign.
“It’s such a long and horrific history that it’s not just going to be about this moment right now,” says Blackstock. “It’s going to be about designing programs and initiatives that really intentionally and explicitly address these issues of distrust and exploitation.”
Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert and head of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, says the task force — an unprecedented move in the vaccine world — may be a promising start. “I think it’s a good idea,” says Poland. “If they are successful in doing this ... they could greatly expand representation, influence and the ability to make huge differences in minority communities’ health and quality of life.”
Blackstock agrees. “We’re in an unprecedented moment, and organizations are being innovative in ways that they haven’t been forced to previously,” she says, adding, “It’s mission-critical.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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