When Timothy Scott got the call to participate in the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial, he didn’t hesitate.
“I was like, ‘Let’s go. Put me in.’ We have to bring this disease to an end,” Scott said.
When coronavirus hit, it shook Scott, 46, to his core. The Des Moines, Wash., father of five said the virus “put a fear in me that I never experienced in my life.” He immediately threw himself into learning as much as he could about the virus and how it was transmitted. Later, he began to look into participating in vaccine trials and AstraZeneca was the first one to respond.
As a Black man, Scott felt it was critical that people like him participate in the vaccine trials and learn about the science. “We need people that look like me to say ‘it’s worth it, it’s worth saving your life.’” At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center site for the AstraZeneca Phase 3 vaccine trial, Scott will be among 500 participants who will be tracked for two years. Almost 50% of that site’s trial participants are people of color, Fred Hutch said.
Diversity in trial participants is important because due to pervasive health and socioeconomic inequalities, many people of color suffer more severe cases of COVID-19 than white people.
But Scott knows that distrust of vaccines — and medical science — runs deep in his community. In a recent survey by Pew Research Center conducted in late November, only 42% of African Americans said they would get the vaccine, significantly lower than other groups.
“I understand the fear of a lot of people,” Scott said. “I understand the reasoning. It’s because of what history has taught us.”
That history is one of racism and a blatant disregard for medical ethics. One of the most notorious cases was the unconscionable horror of the Tuskegee experiment, where for 40 years and not ending until 1972, 600 Black men were tracked for syphilis infection. Without their knowledge, those with the disease were left untreated, resulting in serious illness and death. But it’s not just in the past: Systemic racism in science and medicine continues today, accounting for the fact, for instance, that Black women die from pregnancy-related causes 2.5 times more often than white women.
In many ways, we are reaping the consequences of mistrust sown over many decades.
Michele Andrasik is a senior staff scientist for the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch and director of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Community Engagement for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which is being utilized to recruit participants into COVID-19 trials now.
“A lot of the work that we’re doing is about proving our trustworthiness,” Andrasik said. As scientists, she said they need to be transparent, open and have dialogue with the community. Part of that is recognizing and owning past mistakes.
“Communities that are marginalized, particularly communities of color, all share a legacy of unethical [scientific] practices in their communities,” Andrasik said. “We have to address that and we have to make sure that we are acknowledging that and talking about all of the ways that science has moved forward to try to ensure that scientists cannot be unethical.”
Andrasik said getting a vaccine approved is only part of the battle: It does no good if people won’t take it, particularly the groups most at risk for infection and death.
To build trust, Andrasik and the Coronavirus Prevention Network are partnering with community and faith leaders to do outreach and education on the science and importance of COVID-19 vaccine trials and vaccine adoption.
Building trust is not an easy task. Andrasik said in addition to her work at Fred Hutch, she regularly sends an email blast to friends and family to keep them updated on the latest developments with the vaccine and the virus. As a Black scientist, it’s personal.
“Our community is hard hit. We know whenever the United States has a cold, [African Americans] have pneumonia and we are now in the middle of a pandemic. We have lost a lot of people … our elders, our loved ones,” Andrasik said. “We need something that’s going to stop this in our community. And that means that we have to be involved in it.”
Nationally, African Americans and Latinos are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, and Native American and Alaska Native people 2.6 times more likely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In King County, the virus is surging the most in areas with high concentrations of people of color.
The blunt truth is that without a vaccine coupled with distancing and mask wearing, people are going to die, said Adrienne Shapiro, medical director of the Fred Hutch AstraZeneca Federal Way trial site. This virus is raging, and Shapiro said the sad reason they are able to move as quickly as they have on the vaccine is that the number of cases is so high, it makes data collection much quicker.
Scott hopes he and other vaccine trial volunteers might be able to change the course of history through their actions.
“I want to be a part of the rocket going forward that brought this deadly disease to an end,” Scott said. “That we put a nail in the coffin of the coronavirus.”