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Inside the attempt to build trust about the COVID-19 vaccine in Black communities

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out, some Americans remain skeptical about taking these vaccines. For the Black community, historical distrust makes their concerns even greater. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker speaks with doctors, scientists and educators about how they are working on building confidence in the vaccines for a community that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On Tuesday, Doctor Anthony Fauci, the nation's lead infectious disease expert encouraged Black Americans to have confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines. It was an acknowledgment that many African-Americans are wary of taking these newly developed vaccines. But as they begin to roll out will this distrust leave a community that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic without protection? Christopher Booker spoke with some who are working to not let that happen.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This past summer the National Institutes of Health and the Biotech company, Moderna needed volunteers for their phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial. Thousands of volunteers.

    For Freeman Hrabowski, head of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and his wife Jacqueline, deciding to sign up for the trial was an easy decision. The lead NIH scientist developing the vaccine, Kizzmekia Corbett, was a graduate of the university.

  • Jacqueline Hrabowski:

    Sometimes, you know, it's about, you know, who you know and what you see going on that gives you that kind of belief that this might be OK for me, too.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In September, the Hrabowskis took the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. A few weeks later they were back at the University of Maryland School of Medicine for the second.

    While motivated to help advance the science, they say they're also hoping to change perceptions of the vaccine – particularly in the Black community.

  • Freeman Hrabowski:

    We're really thinking about this next period of the vaccine and whether people are going to take it. And it just seems very important that we start acclimating people to the idea that all of us should be doing this, that it's very important for life and death reasons.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Polls show widespread skepticism about the newly developed vaccines. And in the Black community that distrust is even higher. A Pew study from last month found that only 42 percent of Black people said they would get the vaccine. That's compared to 61 percent of white respondents, 63 percent of Hispanics and 83 percent of English speaking Asians.

    Hrabowski says the lack of trust in the Black community is rooted in history.

  • Freeman Hrabowski:

    We have clear evidence of structural racism. I grew up in Alabama and the Tuskegee experiment is very real.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Hrabowksi is referring to the Tuskegee syphilis study, a secret experiment conducted by the U.S. government from 1932-1972. Hundreds of Black men in Alabama took part in the study of the deadly venereal disease but were denied care and treatment long after a cure became available.

    And the Tuskegee study is not unique.

    In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins University harvested the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman living in Baltimore, without her knowledge or permission. Her abnormally reproductive cells have yielded millions of dollars and are still used in research today.

  • Jacqueline Hrabowski:

    So that's one of the pushbacks that we continue to get even now with all of this messaging and how important it is. And they simply recall well, you remember what happened before.

  • Christopher Booker:

    There is also a wide information gap. A September study released by the COVID Collaborative, UnidosUS and the NAACP found 41 percent of Black Americans surveyed said they know little or nothing about how vaccines are developed and tested, fueling confusion about how the vaccine has been developed and just what is being injected.

    Most notably, when someone receives the vaccine, they are not being injected with the live coronavirus.

  • Kishana Taylor:

    If we made it a pie and each slice of pie is like a different viral protein that you need to make up a whole virus, you're getting one slice of the pie. So it's, it's not an active infection in the same way.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Kishana Taylor, a virologist and postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University has been studying COVID-19.

    The speed and development of this vaccine is historic. Are there valid concerns about the speed at which this was developed and will be distributed?

  • Kishana Taylor:

    If the situation was presented in a way where we came up with all of the components of the vaccine within the last couple of months, I think the concerns would be more warranted.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Taylor says scientists have been working on vaccines for other coronaviruses, like the original SARS virus and the Middle Eastern Respiratory virus, or MERS for years, work that allowed the development of the COVID-19 vaccine to be sped up exponentially.

  •  Kishana Taylor:

    And so we have kind of just been able to take the components of the new SARS coronavirus two virus and plug it into these previous vaccines that have been in development for years. We have been in the research and development process for longer. We just didn't talk about it because it wasn't necessary, right. Like there was not a pandemic. So we didn't need to.

  • Leon McDougle:

    So this is an incident where necessity is the mother of invention.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Doctor Leon McDougle is the president of the National Medical Association, the largest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients.

    This summer the organization launched a COVID-19 taskforce, hoping to become a central source of information for the Black community surrounding the coronavirus.

  • Leon McDougle:

    We wanted to be that trusted source and have an independent, nonpartisan lens looking at the data to form a bridge of clarity to help people to understand what in fact is true and what, in fact is fiction.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And the National Medical Association is working with historically Black medical schools, churches, and civil rights groups to talk about the vaccines within the Black communities they serve.

    As a medical professional, do you feel frustrated?

  • Leon McDougle:

    No, no, no. I'm a family physician, I practice on the Near East side of Columbus, Ohio. This is part of what I do everyday. Doctor means to teach. It is not a dictatorship. We negotiate. We discuss a patient's concern about a particular possible side effect. It's informed discussion, informed consent. That's what we do as health care professionals.

  • Christopher Booker:

    As an educator, Freeman Hrabowski says the responsibility to teach and build trust doesn't rest solely on the Black community, but on the government and medical community as well.

  • Freeman Hrabowski:

    As some would say, here we go, telling Blacks what they need to do. Well, it's what we all should be doing. We need to have those difficult conversations about the past, about where we are, about how racism is still alive and structured racism, structural racism, still a part of what we're dealing with. But how we can make progress and having scientists at the table, having leaders come into being part of the process, building trust in science for all human beings, for Americans and all human beings will be something we all must be a part of.

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