An effective vaccine is on the horizon, but there’s ongoing concern over whether people will trust the vaccine. Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population but only account for 5% of the vaccine trial participants.
Dr. Chris Pernell considered all of this when the New Jersey public health physician signed up for the Moderna vaccine trial after her father, Timothy Pernell Sr., died at 78 from COVID-19 in April. Pernell Sr. worked as a research scientist at Bell Labs for more than 30 years.
“It's been a surreal time. I think those are the best words that I can use to describe it,” she says. “We lost my dad at a time when the epicenter of the pandemic had firmly landed on Newark, New Jersey.”
Pernell Sr. fought for his life in the hospital during the fall and winter of 2019. His family wasn’t sure he would survive, but the “bionic man” was discharged on New Year's Day in 2020 and started subacute rehab for physical reconditioning, his daughter says.
Her father wanted to regain strength to “live out the home stretch” of his life surrounded by his grandkids and family, Pernell says. But then Pernell Sr. suddenly fell ill with high fevers and unstable vitals.
“He had about three of those episodes before his care team said, ‘Look, we're going to have to test him for coronavirus. It's rampant throughout the hospital.’ ” she says. “And unfortunately, he got it.”
Pernell’s cousin also died of probable COVID-19 complications. The “vivacious, full of life” man in his late 50s had a stroke and blood clots in his lungs, she says.
And her sister, a breast cancer survivor, has been fighting the virus as a long hauler after likely getting exposed at work. Her sister stopped using supplemental oxygen a few weeks ago but has yet to return to work, Pernell says.
Her role as a doctor, daughter and Black woman informed Pernell’s decision to volunteer for Moderna’s vaccine trial.
“COVID had taken so much from me, I had to take something from it,” she says. “And I needed a way to live forward my father's legacy.”
Statistics from vaccine trials show Black people are vastly underrepresented. As a physician who focuses on the health inequalities Black and Brown people face particularly in clinical research, she says she understood the importance of representation in the coronavirus vaccine trials.
The conversation around Black Americans and the vaccine needs to start with the community’s historical distrust of medicine and science that stems from instances like the decades-long Tuskegee Study, she says.
“The historical legacy of medical experimentation and exploitation still weighs collectively on the psyche of Black folks in Black communities, she says. “And academic medicine and health care more generally has not done enough to demonstrate trustworthiness.”
Black people also need to feel seen to address ongoing health care disparities such as a lack of diversity in the medical field, she says. A study from the Association of American Medical Colleges found 5% of doctors in the country identified as Black, compared to 56% who were white.
Many people express concerns around the timeline of the coronavirus vaccine development. To build trust, the medical community needs to educate people on why this process was expedited, Pernell says.
For drug companies, the federal government’s $9 billion investment in the process removed the economic disincentives of exploring manufacturing and testing simultaneously, which usually doesn’t happen in clinical research, she says.
Explaining safety data in plain language is important, she says. The coronavirus vaccine is reactogenic, which means some people who have taken it felt soreness or fatigue but were not infected. People who get vaccinated are exposed to the genetic code of the virus that instructs the body to build an immune response, she says, not a dead or activated virus.
“For some people, that level of reassurance is going to help them to say in this day, ‘Yes, I want to get vaccinated,’ ” she says. “And for other people, we're going to have to put the work in. And that's going to be across days, weeks, months and even years.”
Pernell can’t say for sure whether she received the vaccine or a placebo in the double-blind Moderna trial — but she stands by her decision to participate.
She felt some pain after receiving the first injection in late August, but it didn’t disrupt her daily activities. Then after receiving the second injection 28 days later, she experienced severe fatigue and headaches in addition to soreness in her arm. She started improving within 24 hours and felt back to normal two days after receiving the second injection, she says.
With the vaccine rollout approaching, Pernell asks people still considering or rejecting vaccination to start a conversation with someone trustworthy, whether it’s with the National Medical Association, a professional group of Black physicians, or a doctor in their community. She says she’s hopeful people will make informed choices because the U.S. needs the vaccine to stop the pandemic.
For folks working in health care and academic medicine, Pernell says they need to listen to people’s fears and speak up.
“We can't begin to demonize or to create stigma around that skepticism, especially in Black and Brown communities,” she says, “because it will backfire on us.”
This segment aired on December 10, 2020.