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Diversity Crucial to Success of COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Alexis Johnson is a recruitment specialist at Rochester Clinical Research, which is enrolling participants in COVID-19 vaccine trials. Provided by Rochester Clinical Research

Alexis Johnson gets lots of questions from people thinking about signing up for a COVID-19 vaccine trial at Rochester Clinical Research.

A common one is, “Would you do it?”

“If I could, I would,” said Johnson, a recruitment specialist at RCR in Irondequoit. As an employee, she can’t participate in the trials run by her company.

Otherwise, she said she’d sign up “just to show them I’m not trying to tell you to do something I wouldn’t do.”

Johnson said that when she talks to people on the phone, she doesn’t tell them she’s Black. But said she knows – both as a recruiter and as a Black woman – the need for minorities to participate in research against a disease that has burdened Black and Latino communities.

In Monroe County alone, the rate of COVID-19 among Blacks is three times the rate among whites, per 100,000 people. The rate among Latinos is more than twice that of whites. The death rate per 100,000 also is higher among Blacks and Latinos.

The statistics are reflected nationally, which is why pharmaceutical manufacturers and the labs testing potential vaccines are trying to recruit representatives of the groups hit so hard by the novel coronavirus.

“It’s not me trying to get you in because you’re a minority,” Johnson said. “It’s because we really do need the help.”

Tests of vaccines are underway around the world, and tens of thousands of participants are needed. Rochester has several studies in the works.

Rochester Clinical Research is conducting eight trials. Rochester Regional Health is working on a vaccine trial in partnership with the University of Rochester Medical Center. URMC also is working separately. All told, a few thousand people will need to be recruited for the local studies.

In order to determine which vaccines are most effective across the broadest swath of the population, they need to be tested with people from different races and ethnicities. The reason isn’t necessarily about biology but about other factors that could determine the usefulness of a vaccine.

Socioeconomic status and access to health care can affect an individual’s and a population’s overall health. Blacks have higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Such chronic conditions can increase risks for complications from COVID-19 and makes a vaccine that much more crucial.

“The idea is to have more diverse representation in a clinical trial … so you can have a better representation and earlier access to investigational medication by those people being affected the most,” said Adam Larrabee, president of Rochester Clinical Research.

Larrabee said that diversity is so important to the sponsoring pharmaceutic companies that they require RCR to hit certain benchmarks. He said the goal for the COVID-19 trials is at least 20% minority participation. In addition, he said people older than 65 also are being sought.

Study participants are paid for their participation, and transportation can be arranged.

The vaccine trials are double-blind placebo controlled, which means participants are randomly placed into one of two groups: those who receive the vaccine being tested and those who receive a substance that does not contain any medication. The vaccines under study do not give people COVID.

COVID-19 vaccine trials aren’t the only studies where it can be difficult to recruit minorities. But these trials could pose their own challenges. COVID testing was slow to come to minority communities, which could lead some people to wonder why now they seem so important.

“If you explain to them, ‘this is what it is, this is how it can help you, your family,’ they have a better understanding of it,” Johnson said. “I let them know, you are wanted, you can help.”

She said younger people are harder to recruit and she wasn’t sure if it was because they felt they didn’t have time or they didn’t grasp how their participation can help those around them. Older people, in her experience, were more likely to join a study.

Johnson said that once the facts are explained, “Nine times out of 10, they feel that OK, they want to do it because it will help me out, help my granddad out, help my family out. A lot want to do it because they know people that have underlying issues that could be affected by (COVID-19) and want to make sure they don’t get it.”