Much like the rest of the world, I have been very aware of just how serious the COVID-19 pandemic is--a health crisis in need of immediate action with African Americans dying at twice the rate and hospitalized at almost three times that of our white counterparts. So, when I was given the opportunity to participate in the vaccine trial to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus, I knew right away that it was my inherent duty as a community leader to sign up. As a Yale Cultural Ambassador and pastor for Walter’s Memorial AME Zion Church, it felt like such a significant way to further encourage members of my community to participate right alongside me, to drive health equity in our own community and advance science at the same time.
I have participated in a few studies over the years. I feel strongly that you have to be willing to be a part of research in order to make change. I have to admit, this time was different, not just because of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on my community, but also because I asked my wife to join the study too. Asking my wife, Vanessa, to join was not a difficult decision but I did give it more thought than usual. Like most people, we always have some concern about any medical procedure, but it is so incredibly important that as many people as possible participate for this vaccine to be relevant in all communities, and especially people from minority groups. So, we spoke about it together. We considered that eligible participants for the study would receive either a placebo or the study vaccine and neither the volunteers, the staff, nor scientists knew which. We asked questions of the Principal Investigator, Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, about what would happen if we didn’t get the vaccine as part of the study if the vaccine later received FDA approval. Most importantly, we wanted to understand the safety data. We discussed the informed consent with Dr. Ogbuagu, who was great in answering all our questions and addressing all of our concerns. He really just put us at ease about our participation. He also told us participants would later find out if they had gotten the real vaccine or placebo and those who had gotten the placebo would be first in line to receive the vaccine once the FDA approved it. We both decided we had to participate because we felt that as many people as possible need to participate for this vaccine to be relevant in all communities.
In January 2021 when study participants were informed whether they had received the placebo or the vaccine, we had a mixed blessing. We found out Vanessa got the placebo and I got the real vaccine as part of the study. When I was told that I had been given the vaccine as opposed to the placebo, my first thought was “hallelujah.” I wanted to shout from the nearest mountain top. And although we were both disappointed about Vanessa receiving the placebo, we knew this was a part of the importance of discovery and celebrated that at least one of us got the vaccine. Even though my wife didn’t get it during the trial, she says she has no regrets and plans to get vaccinated as soon as she is offered the opportunity.
I decided to write this, and we both decided to share our stories, because people of color need to understand that we have to participate in the research so we know whether drugs and devices are going to be effective for all of us. COVID has hit our people hard and I have presided over too many funerals as a result; I want everyone to know people who looked like them participated in the vaccine trial. I participated. My wife and my friends participated. Like Vanessa, your participation may not help you, but it may help your children, your grandchildren, your sister or brother or people you don’t even know. And as for this study and the vaccines which have now been approved, I just feel if we want to hug our families again, if we want our communities to not just survive but to thrive, we have to get vaccinated.
In December, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization (EUA) for the first two COVID-19 vaccines, for the prevention of disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in individuals 16 or 18 years of age and older.