By Dr. Asefa Jejaw Mekonnen

As a physician of color, I am well aware of what the past history has been in the African American community when it comes to scientific experimentation. Tuskegee and the Henrietta Lacks experiments ware inhuman and inconceivable by any measure .Continued structural racism in healthcare and the justice system did not help the TRUST factor. It is a catalyst for continued mistrust. Unfortunately, it takes time and continued struggle to change this and bring social equality.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take life at an alarming rate. We are still in the middle of an unprecedented health care crisis. It is evident to all of us that black and brown communities have been affected the most. By now, we all know someone who has lost his or her life due to COVID-19.

Due to unprecedented technology, scientific and governmental collaboration, and a new approach to vaccine development we have achieved the most significant scientific output of the century with the COVID-19 vaccine in just 10 months.

I am one of the investigators of the COVID-19 vaccine clinical phase iii trial that has been conducted by Moderna through Meridian Clinical research. I am a witness to the ethical and scientific integrity of the trial. I have also campaigned to improve minority participation in the trial so we can have evidence that can be generalized to society.  The trial had diverse participants. The trial data was reviewed by an independent scientific team to eliminate investigator bias. The emergency approval process included experts from diverse ethnic groups, including prominent black scientists like Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, a black immunologist. Efficacy and safety data were impressive, with above 90% protection from severe COVID-19.

All the development efforts will not result in the goal to save lives and achieve a herd immunity if our society does not get vaccinated. The success of a vaccination program is in its vaccination coverage.  Recent vaccination coverage data reported by Kaiser Health showed that as of January 14 2021, in the 16 states where race was reported, African Americans were vaccinated at a much lower rate compared to white counterparts. The pattern repeats itself among healthcare workers where the proportion of black healthcare workers ware fairly represented.

We need to change this dynamics. Black healthcare workers and community leaders need to come to the front line to educate our community. We need to explain the process of COVID-19 vaccine development and abort the fear and uncertainty with clear scientific and factual information. We also need to work on improving access for high- risk persons of color to receive vaccine on a priority base. An email to the medical staff will not reach the ground floors of the hospital where the porter or the environmental worker, who has been the backbone of the COVID -19 response, is located. A new way of communication is needed that is accessible to all. This time is not the past. Scientific integrity and human subject protection are well scrutinized. We need to trust the vaccine and raise our sleeve for the shot. Only then can we can control the pandemic and save lives.

Dr. Mekonnen is a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician based in Rockville, MD

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