As COVID-19 cases soared to new daily highs across the United States, November 2020 brought some exciting and promising vaccine efficacy results. Currently, the United States has four COVID-19 vaccines in phase 3 trials: the Moderna vaccine (mRNA-1273), the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine (AZD1222), Pfizer/BioNTech’s (BNT162), and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (JNJ-78436735).
While Pfizer/ BioNTech and Moderna received fast-track designation by the Food and Drug Administration, AZD1222 and JNJ-78436735 trials were resumed after a temporary hold. Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have also submitted an emergency-use authorization application to the FDA after favorable results from a completed phase 3 clinical trial. The results so far seem promising, with Oxford/AstraZeneca’s combined analysis from different dosing regimens resulting in an average efficacy of 70%. Pfizer/ BioNTech and Moderna have each reported vaccines that are 90% and 95% effective respectively in trials.
However, even with a safe and effective vaccine, there must be an equal emphasis on a successful coronavirus vaccine program’s three pillars in the communities that are the hardest hit: participation in the vaccine trials by minority populations, equitable allocation and distribution of vaccine for minority populations, and immunization uptake by minority populations.
1. Participation in the vaccine trials by minority populations
With a great emphasis on the inclusion of diverse populations, the Moderna vaccine clinical trials gained participation by racial and ethnic minorities. As of Oct. 21, 2020, the Moderna vaccine trial participants were 10% African American, 20% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 63% White, and 3% other.1 Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer also had approximately 42% of overall – and 45% of U.S. – participants from diverse backgrounds. The proportional registration of racially and ethnically diverse participants in other vaccine trials is also anticipated to be challenging.
Though there has been an improvement in minority participation in COVID-19 vaccine trials, it is still below the ideal representation when compared with U.S. census data.2 Ideally, participants in a clinical trial should represent the U.S. population to get a full picture of a medical product’s risks and benefits. However, recruitment rates in clinical trials have remained low among minorities for various reasons. Historically, African Americans make up only 5% of participants in U.S. clinical trials, while they represent 13% of the country’s general population; likewise, Hispanics are also underrepresented.3
The legacy of distrust in the medical system is deep-rooted and is one of the most substantial barriers to clinical trial participation. A plethora of unethical trials and experiments on the African American population have left a lasting impact. The most infamous and widely known was the “Tuskegee Study,” conducted by the United States Public Health Service to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis” in Black populations. In the study, performed without informed consent, Black men with latent or late syphilis received no treatment, even after penicillin was discovered as a safe and reliable cure for syphilis. This human experimentation lasted for 40 years, resulting in 128 male patients who died from syphilis or its complications, 40 of their spouses infected, and 19 of their children with acquired congenital syphilis.
In another case, the father of modern gynecology, J. Marion Sims, allegedly performed experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women without consent. For more than 4 decades, North Carolina’s statewide eugenics program forcibly sterilized almost 7,600 people, many of whom were Black. Another story of exploitation involves Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, responsible for some of the most important medical advances of all time. Though her cells were commercialized and generated millions for medical researchers, neither Ms. Lacks nor her family knew the cell cultures existed until more than 20 years after her death from cervical cancer. Many years later, victims and families of the Tuskegee experiment, individuals sterilized by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, and the family of Henrietta Lacks received compensation, and Sims’s statue was taken down in 2018. Not too long ago, many criticized the FDA’s “Exception from Informed Consent policy” for compromising patients’ exercise of autonomy, and concern for overrepresenting African Americans in the U.S. EFIC trials.
Racial disparities in medical treatment and unconscious biases among providers are among the reasons for mistrust and lack of trial participation by minority populations today. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said that recent social upheaval sparked by the death of George Floyd has likely added to feelings of mistrust between minority groups and government or pharmaceutical companies. “Yet we need their participation if this is going to have a meaningful outcome,” he said.
While “Operation Warp Speed” is committed to developing and delivering a COVID-19 vaccine rapidly while adhering to safety and efficacy standards, the challenges to enrolling people from racial and ethnic minorities in trials have been a concern. The political partisanship and ever-shifting stances on widespread COVID-19 testing, use of facemasks, endorsement of unproven drugs for the disease, and accusations against the FDA for delaying human trials for the vaccine have contributed to the skepticism as well. Tremendous pressure for a rushed vaccine with unrealistic timelines, recent holds on AZD1222 and JNJ-78436735 as well as the AZD1222 dosage error during trials have also raised skepticism of the safety and efficacy of vaccine trials.