Stronger Houston: Working to recruit more minorities for vaccine trials

Houston vaccine trials struggle to find diverse participants
Houston vaccine trials struggle to find diverse participants

HOUSTON – A couple of big-name frontrunners in the race for a coronavirus vaccine, Moderna and Pfizer, began part of their experimental trial here in Houston.

They wanted to recruit in the area because it was a hotspot for the virus and the diversity of the city. However, it’s clear there isn’t the minority participation the drugmakers need to get a vaccine approved.

Meet vaccine participant Chris Owor

“I’m from the hood," Owor said. "They call it the slums.”

Owor grew up in Alief. He said he probably would have dropped out of school if it weren’t for basketball.

“I didn’t have much," he said. "I was a kid who was served sandwiches, lights were off. Athletics got me to college.”

After college, playing ball helped him travel the world and become a teacher in Fort Bend.

“Looking at me now, I would go back in time and say, "Educate yourself,'” Owor said. “The most powerful tool any minority could have is education.”

He said that if he didn’t have a good education, there is no way he would ever agree to participate in scientific research. Yet he’s now received two injections as part of the Moderna trial.

“I told my parents,” Owor said. “They told me don’t turn into a mutant.”

These are real conversations happening in communities across Houston and the country.

Black and Hispanic communities are not signing up for vaccine trials

According to the Texas Center for Drug Development, less than 8% of the participants in the vaccine trial in Houston are Black. Less than 23% are Hispanic.

That’s nowhere near an accurate representation of the Houston-area community which has about 23% Black and almost 45% Hispanic.

No vaccine can be proven safe without testing on different ethnicities.

“That’s why this is such an important part of making that happen," said Dr. Veronica Garcia Fragoso, senior clinical research investigator. "It’s a goal we all want, and it’s a goal we all work for.”

Why won’t more minorities step up?

Local doctors, the National Institutes for Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all point to the Tuskegee study as a reason why clinical trials struggle to get minority participation.

“I think it dates back historically to some experiments that were done using African American patients and specifically one of the ones that’s most well known as the Tuskegee syphilis trial where there was a study on African Americans that was conducted for about 40 years on syphilis,” said Dr. Jean Raphael, who works on diversity and inclusion at Texas Children’s Hospital. “Even when they found out that penicillin could treat syphilis, they never told them that.”

Raphael said that study damaged the relationship between the African-American community and research institutes and hospitals.

There are also a number of other studies showing racial bias in the medical field, including one where doctors admit they believe there are different pain tolerances between their white and minority patients.

Raphael said that is detrimental because he believes these implicit biases hinder minority patients from getting pain medicine that may be needing.

Why should minorities think they’ll be treated fairly in a clinical trial?

Here is what has changed in modern medicine:

  • Current studies are completely random. Nobody knows who is getting the real drug or a placebo.
  • Participation is voluntary.
  • Each patient is closely monitored for changes in their health while the study is ongoing.

“We are going to do the best to take care of you,” Fragoso said.

In the Tuskegee study, researchers were only studying black men and they were not transparent with their study.

Owor said, today’s trial is the total opposite.

“This is nowhere near the experience of the past,” Owor said. “If I could help someone, if I could help my community quickly get a vaccine, to know if it works, distribute out and get back to normal, sign me up every single time.”

Distrust isn’t the only thing holding minorities back

Minorities make up a large portion of the workforce that’s been deemed essential. So, work requirements may prohibit them from taking part. Also, a lack of transportation may hinder involvement as well.

Researchers with the TCDD said they are prepared to offer compensation for all participants since they assume all volunteers need to take off work or find transportation throughout the study.

“We value the time and travel,"said Dr. Lisa Holloway, clinical research investigator with TCDD. “There can be compensation around $1,000, but again each study is different, but again the compensation is there.”

Why can’t researchers just try the vaccine on those people who are willing without recruiting minorities?

Researchers need to be able to prove the vaccine will be safe and effective for everyone.

“Some medications work better in certain populations than others," Raphael said. "So, you know, there are these times where based on race, ethnicity or gender, certain things have the potential to work better in certain populations versus others.”

According to TCDD, when Phase 3 began, volunteers were predominantly Caucasian.

“We want this study to reflect both a good number and a fair number, especially since the African-American communities are disproportionately affected by COVID,” Holloway said.

Many scientists believe a vaccine is the only way out of the pandemic

Houston minorities have the chance to make a difference for the entire country. A vaccine won’t come to fruition without a fair representation of our population.

TCDD still needs all ethnicities to sign up and refer others for the study. Fill out applications at houstonfightscovid.com.

Trials will continue for months.

Anyone who successfully refers another participant can earn an extra $50 through the ambassador referral program under the “Invite to Fight” button on houstonfightscovid.com.