Vaccine trials struggle to get minority participants due to decades of mistrust

COVID-19 vaccine trials are underway across the United States. But researchers say that they are struggling to attract African Americans and other minorities to participate.
At the corner of Broad and Market streets in Newark, if one were to ask people how they feel about participating in a vaccine trial, it will likely only take minutes before someone mentions one of the most infamous incidents in American medical history – the Tuskegee experiment.
The Tuskegee experiment is an infamous 40-year study in which researchers allowed diseases to progress among Black Alabama sharecroppers. That incident and others like it underlie a deep-seated suspicion that is now proving to be a barrier for researchers who are looking to enlist enough people of color in trial runs of COVID-19 vaccines.
“When you look back at programs even like the Tuskegee experiment, that's documented what they did with vaccines,” said one Newark resident.
“I would not be comfortable taking a trial of a vaccine,” said another. “It’s too early.”
In a Pew Study last week, only 32% of Black respondents said that they were likely to take a vaccine, compared to 52% of whites. While the United States population is about 13% Black, they make up only about 3% of enrollees in COVID vaccine trials.
The issue is of great concern to University Hospital president and CEO Shereef Elnahal. The hospital is one of 90 sites in the U.S. injecting subjects with the vaccine or a placebo in a clinical trial developed by Moderna.
“That involves following every study participant very closely to track side effects and of course to track the incidents of infection,” Elnahal says.
The trial has enrolled several hundred participants. But Elnahal says that they need more, especially more minorities. This is to make sure that the vaccine is safe and effective for all types of people.
“We're helping people to understand it's a voluntary trial. So far, the vaccine candidate has been found to be safe. There are no adverse effects. And we're trying to communicate that to a community that naturally is skeptical of medical investigations,” Elnahal says. “It is a majority minority community here. There are deep, profound memories of the history of medical experimentation on Black Americans. and our job is, of course, to highlight the differences between this study effort and those horrific historical examples.”
Elnahal decided that the best way he could to that was to roll up his sleeve and get the injection himself.
“We would not be promoting a trial or conducting a trial at University Hospital that we didn't feel was safe in terms of what we knew about the side effects, and the best way to demonstrate that was to become a study participant myself,” he says.
The Moderna trial is looking to enroll 30,000 people nationwide.