Michael Sneed, executive vice president of Global Corporate Affairs and chief communication officer of Johnson & Johnson (Photo courtesy Johnson & Johnson)

By J. K. Schmid
Special to the AFRO

As uncertainties over the future of America in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to swirl, a premier American pharmaceutical and medical multinational is making pledges and commitments to ensure no one finds themselves in this same position again.

Johnson & Johnson, is on the cusp of emergency authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine. At the moment, Johnson & Johnson, long-famous for products like Band-Aid and Tylenol, is gearing up to manufacture one billion doses, 100 million of which will be slated for American distribution.

Unlike Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson product is not designed for a follow-up second shot booster. Questions about timing the second dose and whether the Biden administration can commit to 100 million vaccinations remain all while COVID-deaths reach a new peak early on in the new year.

Prior to this new development for Johnson & Johnson, the No. 37 Fortune 500 company announced in November its efforts to close the healthcare gap in America’s Black and Brown communities.

Johnson & Johnson, a 300-plus billion dollar company, has pledged 100 million dollars over the next five years towards closing the gap in health outcomes in the country’s minority and most-vulnerable communities.

While $100 million might buy a small hospital, Johnson & Johnson says they’re working on building up people over infrastructure.

“We’re not necessarily focusing on bricks and mortar, I think we’re focusing more on programs that really have a direct impact on communities of color,” Michael Sneed, executive vice president of Global Corporate Affairs and chief communication officer for Johnson & Johnson, told the AFRO. “The 100 million really starts with things such as scholarships to improve Black representation in healthcare professions.”

Like politics and business, “representation matters” appears to be the mantra in science and medicine.

“We know Black and brown people are more likely to access healthcare if they see people who look like them in healthcare,” Mr. Sneed said. “The data’s very clear about that. Sometimes it’s about not having access, but a lot of times it’s about reticence in accessing healthcare systems. We want to make sure people see people who look like them.”

Portions of the allocated funds are going and will continue to go to frontline healthcare workers in communities of color, but the longest term project may be Johnson & Johnson’s push for more Black and brown people participating in clinical trials. Like the trials continuing as Johnson & Johnson seek emergency approval for their new vaccine.

“The amount of money we spend in research and development on things that disproportionately impact communities color is astounding,” Mr. Sneed said. “So, when you think of things like high blood pressure and diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, these are all areas that have a material impact on communities of color, and so being able to get people, who are in those communities, into clinical trials, so we can develop the best treatments for them, we think it is paramount.”

Johnson & Johnson was incorporated in 1886, and the racial healthcare gap may be more visible now, but has been acute for centuries. Why is Johnson & Johnson taking these steps now?

“If you’re inside Johnson & Johnson, you’re well aware of this history. Even at our inception, we were a company that employed more women than men, which is almost unheard of back then,” Mr. Sneed said. “We’re headquartered in New Brunswick, New Jersey. New Brunswick, New Jersey, like a lot of communities, in the late 60s and late 70s, there was a lot of social unrest Johnson & Johnson made the decision to stay in New Brunswick and help rebuild New Brunswick. And now, we’re 50 years later, and New Brunswick is a thriving multiracial, and innovation hub of Johnson & Johnson and New Jersey.”

“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, when it comes to supporting communities of color, this is in our DNA.”