Local hospitals work to make sure minorities are part of coronavirus vaccine trials

Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine trials paused
Posted at 6:42 PM, Nov 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-23 18:42:21-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — As we get closer to mass production of a vaccine for COVID-19, questions have been raised about whether the vaccine trials have been tested on enough minorities.

Henry Ford Health System is a site for two different COVID-19 vaccine trials. Medical experts in Detroit say minority inclusion in this research is a top priority.

The fight against the coronavirus is personal for Dr. Kellie McFarlin. Her cousin’s 5-year-old daughter, Skylar Herbert, died from COVID-19 complications last spring.

“It really hit home,” McFarlin said. “We’ve just all been so affected by it.”

That’s just one of many reasons the Henry Ford Health System senior staff surgeon wanted to participate in Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial. She also volunteered because she wants to protect her 4-year-old twin daughters and the rest of her community from this pandemic.

“If the study didn’t contain minority patients, I wouldn’t know what that information meant. Would it be effective for minority groups,” McFarlin said.

“I thought it was a way to give back,” Christine Plummer added.

Plummer is a nurse and the Clinic Director at City on a Hill Health Clinic. It’s a free medical clinic in Zeeland, Michigan. As a Hispanic/Latinx healthcare worker, Plummer says she jumped at the chance to be part of the Moderna vaccine trial.

“We need to have more people with our background in trials so that we can see if this going to be effective for us as well,” Plummer said.

The Moderna study had to be slowed in September in order to recruit more minority participants.

“We actually took the decision about halfway through the trial to really slow down, to ensure that all participants of all different backgrounds were given the appropriate amount of information and the opportunity to enroll in the study. And that meant really focusing on ensuring that our information about our trial was getting to the right communities so people could make an informed decision,” Melanie Iverson, Moderna Chief Development Officer, said.

A group funded by the National Institutes of Health even released a TV ad to get more minority volunteers for all three of the vaccine studies that are underway.

“The way our immune system reacts can differ based on these genetic racial differences, and sometimes gender differences. This is why it’s important that we’re looking at these factors,” said Henry Ford Health System Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Adnan Munkarah.

Munkarah says because COVID-19 has hit Black and Hispanic populations more than twice as hard as other racial groups, diversity in the vaccine trials is critical. That’s why the hospital did a lot of outreach in the community.

“We were very thankful and grateful to our community during the Moderna vaccine trial because we’ve had significant interest from our minority population wanting to come in. We’ve engaged them early enough in education, letting them know, and being transparent with the data on that-- making sure their safety and health is on the forefront,” Munkarah said.

Here’s what we know about two of the studies:

  • For the Pfizer vaccine trial, 10% of the participants are Black, and 13% are Hispanic.
  • For the Moderna study, 10% of the participants are Black, and 20% are Hispanic.

Moderna executives praised the Detroit community for being one of the most diverse test sites.

“Nearly 30% of the participants from this site were of communities of color, and of minority populations. This is incredibly important as we study these vaccines,” Iverson said.

But recruiting minorities for medical studies can be challenging because of past abuses during things like the Tuskegee syphilis study, where Black study participants were mistreated and in some cases allowed to die during the research.

Other historical inequities in health care also create fear and skepticism. But vaccine trial participants like McFarlin say there is now much greater transparency which hopefully can re-assure those who are fearful.

“It doesn’t change the past, but it opens up a new avenue where there’s open communication about what’s going on right now,” she said.

Henry Ford Health System has been selected as a site for another phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial.

Enrollment for the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson clinical trial of Ensemble is underway.

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