As residents in the United States prepare for the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccines, some local companies are working to ensure everyone, especially those in minority communities, are equipped with good information about them.
In its clinical trials, Pfizer had about 150 trial sites, including 39 here in the U.S. Of those who participated domestically, the company said 30 percent were of diverse backgrounds.
Despite making up about 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to Census data, only 10 percent of trial participants identified as Black. Tiffany Whitlow, co-founder of Huntsville-based Acclinate Genetics, said more education will help bring in Black residents into the equation.
"People need to understand what a clinical trial is and why they should participate. So, we can't expect for people to get in line and do something just because of an incentive. I believe that the African-American community specifically needs to be better educated so that they can understand what a clinical trial is and how they can play a part in it in the development of a vaccine," Whitlow said.
Fellow co-founder Del Smith added that it's not just about trying to mirror the country's population in these studies, but also reflecting how the virus is affecting certain populations.
"We know for example that African-Americans and Latinos are suffering greater numbers of infections and also, unfortunately, deaths," Smith said. "When you take into effect that just in the State of Alabama alone, about 40 percent of all COVID-related infections and deaths are within the African-American populations, those numbers don't jive. And so, I think that it's really important that we increase those numbers when it comes to participation."
The duo is working with communities and organizations in both Huntsville and Birmingham to help bring good medical information to minority communities.
"Just getting more information to people doesn't necessarily get them to change their behaviors when it comes to both preventing COVID as well as being in line to take a vaccine. That is very, very important that we think about the affective element of this. This is about relationships and having people trusting of the sources of information, not just more information," Smith said.
One such example of them helping to frame a full picture of the vaccines is when it comes to efficacy. In a statement to WAAY 31 News, a spokesperson for Pfizer said "Efficacy was consistent across age, race and ethnicity. The observed efficacy in adults over 65 years of age was over 94%."
However this week, researchers with MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) said that in a study of a vaccine similar to that of Pfizer and Moderna "the team found that the number of people whose immune system didn’t robustly respond to the vaccine ranged from less than half of one percent of white participants to nearly 10 percent of Asian participants."
Smith argued that such a distinction should not be a disincentive for people to take the vaccine once it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and distributed into the community.
"Pharmacogenomics tells us that the efficacy of drugs can vary based upon a person's race or ethnicity. So, it's really no surprise that we may find that the COVID vaccine does not have the same level of efficacy for certain racial or ethnic groups," Smith said.
Whitlow said she and Smith have been encourage by the partnerships forged both pre-pandemic and during the outbreak that will help people feel more confident in engaging with the medical community, especially as the vaccines are finalized.
"I feel very hopeful from the support that industry is providing the academic medical centers doing the research and the CRO's. So, I do believe that together, that ecosystem is playing together so that people really understand why this is important and what it means for us right now," Whitlow said.
The two will hold a free webinar along with Dr. Jane Morgan from Piedmont Hospital to help answer as many questions as they can about the vaccines and the process of distribution.
"She's breaking down the differences between the vaccines and how they're developed and what makes Moderna different than Pfizer and I really want people to understand that. And it's important for us to bring in the subject matter experts in industry and deliver it to people in real time so that we are able to hopefully accelerate not only the speed with which these vaccines are being developed, but also accelerate the amount of diversity that we start to see within these trials," Whitlow said.
That webinar will be on December 15 on nowincluded.com.