Two presidents of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in New Orleans have announced they are participating in a vaccine trial for COVID-19.
The HBCU presidents, Walter M. Kimbrough of Dillard University and C. Reynold Verret of Xavier University of Louisiana, made the announcement earlier this month and are encouraging students to do the same. The announcement immediately conjured up conversations about a common distrust of medical institutions among Black Americans due to past transgressions.
However, President Verret said that when a vaccine comes, it’s up to Black citizens to make sure it will work for them.
“We’re protecting our communities,” Verret told NBC News. “It is important to have people like us in these trials. We all know someone who has passed or been hit with COVID-19. When a vaccine comes, we want it to be available and to work on our community. Participating in trials is the only way to do so. We only have 1 or 2 percent; we need 10 to 15 percent participation.”
The HBCU presidents wrote in their letter to students that “Overcoming the virus will require the availability of vaccines effective for all peoples in our communities, especially our Black and brown neighbors. . . It is of the utmost importance that a significant number of Black and brown subjects participate so that the effectiveness of these vaccines be understood across the many diverse populations that comprise these United States.”
The letter went on to say the presidents “recall unethical examples of medical research. We remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which misused and caused harm to African Americans and other people of color, undermining trust in health providers and caretakers.”
The reaction to the announcement was swift and strong. One person posted on Twitter, “The students from HBCUs should definitely sign up for vaccination experiments — right AFTER students from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.”
But Black scientists, doctors, clinicians, and physicians praised the HBCU presidents for stepping up and pushing Black students to join the trial.
“Genetics related to racial differences make it essential that we be involved in broad-based and diverse clinical trials of medications and vaccines,” Dr. Larry Graham, a retired pulmonologist in Atlanta, told NBC News. “We must be sure it works in Black folks. This can only be determined by our inclusion in the research-based trials of such vaccines.”
Verret and Kimbrough say they understand the public ire, but they believe some of it is about politics because of the rush to furnish a vaccine by multiple companies. The HBCU presidents insist they are not making a political statement but instead making it clear Black people need to be part of these trials for the vaccine to work for them.
“I will use this analogy: If you jump off a cliff, you’re going to hit the ground,” Verret said. “You can jump off a cliff with a parachute or you can jump off without one. I want the parachute. A vaccine is the parachute. I want it for my children, for my neighbors. That’s all this is about.”