By Karen Stokes
COVID-19 has ravaged the world for months and has changed our lives, forever. The virus has ended the lives of more than 317,000 Americans so far.
Two vaccines are now available. Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration on Friday, Dec. 18. The Moderna vaccine will be administered beginning on Monday, Dec 21.
In documents provided to the FDA for review, Moderna reported that its Phase III clinical trial, which included more than 30,000 people, showed that the vaccine was 94.1% effective at preventing the development of COVID-19 symptoms. Pfizer’s vaccine is similarly effective at preventing symptoms, with an efficacy of 95%. This is good news for many but not for everyone is eager to receive either vaccine.
African Americans are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the white population due to health care disparities, pre-existing conditions and more exposure to jobs deemed essential. Fewer than half of African Americans said they would get the vaccine, according to a December Pew Report.
For some in the African American community, there is a dissonance between science and the government. This community is concerned with America’s history of racism in medical research.
Most people have heard about the Tuskegee Experiment. Beginning in 1932 to 1972, 600 Black men from rural Alabama volunteered for a study, being told they were receiving free health care from the government. Of those men, 399 had syphilis and 201 did not. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance.
The men were left to suffer from untreated syphilis in order for the government to track the progression of the disease. These men experienced severe health problems including blindness, mental impairment and death. The research was done at the Tuskegee Institute in partnership with the Public Health Service.
There was no need for the men to suffer. During the 40-year period of the “experiment,” penicillin became available as a treatment for syphilis but was withheld from the men.
The mistrust of public health officials and vaccines is understandable. Another reason for skepticism is the “warp speed” of the creation of the vaccine.
“It’s been developed fast in many ways, but this has been worked on for five or six years to have a basic vaccine that you could just plug in any virus information into that vaccine and then it could work as a vaccine overall,” Dr. Anthony Linn, chief medical officer, Outreach Community Health Center, said.
“For instance,” Linn explained, “If three years from now there’s a new virus, we could use the basic structure of the vaccine and stick the new information on the new virus on that vaccine so it could work again, that’s what made it available so fast. They have been working on this basic vaccine for a number of years at a number of laboratories.”
According to the FDA, the most common side effects among participants in both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna phase III clinical trials were: injection site pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever.
Linn believes doctors have to spend time with each individual patient to help them understand the importance of getting the vaccine. It’s good for their grandma and family members and friends who they may come in contact with to not spread the virus.
Linn has had conversations with the State of Wisconsin about the schedule of the general public to receive the vaccine and speculated that would occur approximately late February or March.
“Nobody knows for sure,” he said. “The State of Wisconsin has gotten 50,000 vaccines but there’s over 400,000 health care workers and people in nursing homes that need it. Those all have to be satisfied before it gets to the general public.”
Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, dean at the Morehouse School of Medicine was vaccinated on television to attempt to remove the stigma of vaccination to the African American community.
Rice in an interview with CNN said “Black scientists and doctors helped develop the vaccine and sat on the FDA and CDC advisory boards. Black people are also looking at the data.”
She continued, “We are in the rooms where it’s happening, so we clearly are not going to go against ourselves because we understand how critical this is for Black America and Latinx America who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.”
One African American who was in the room where it was happening was Kizzmekia Corbett. She is the scientific lead for the government’s search for a coronavirus vaccine at the National Institutes of Health.
Corbett is a viral immunologist and a research fellow in Graham’s lab. She leads the team that has been working on coronaviruses for the past five years.
Even with the advent of the vaccines, Linn was adamant that we continue wearing masks and practicing social distance so we can move forward to the time where our lives can start to be normal.
“I’m thinking and hoping and again relying on the experts with their predictions that that will be happening toward the middle of the end of next summer,” Linn said. “But again, that depends on so many things. If we combine the vaccine, following the protocols and following the rules we’ll get there. The opportunity for things to open much quicker is a combination of the vaccine, social distancing, wearing masks and good hand hygiene.”