Black Doctors and Scientists Led COVID-19 Vaccine Development

Dr. Rachel Mehr says a Black scientist led the development of the COVID-19 vaccine and urges the Black community to get vaccinated.

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — Black doctors and researchers have been a part of the strategy and development of the vaccine against the COVID-19 virus according to Dr. Rachel Mehr, a doctor at St. Thomas Ascension who is a Meharry Medical College graduate. 

Dr. Mehr said that members of the Black community who fear the vaccine for the COVID-19 virus should put those fears aside.

“We have lots of Black people who have helped to develop the vaccine –Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, is a viral immunologist at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. She was the scientific lead on the coronavirus team, so we are at the table developing the solutions to this pandemic.” 

In December 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH said in an interview with ABC, “Kizzy is an African American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.”

Dr. Mehr grew up in Nashville and is passionate about the need for the Black community in Tennessee to be vaccinated. 

“The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting the black community,” said Dr. Mehr. “We need to – yes– wear masks, social distance. We’ve been trying to do those things, but it hasn’t been enough. We see people passing away. . . I’m losing patients. We’re losing our mentors, our elders – also in the middle age communities,” Mehr said.

Even those who survive the disease face issues. “COVID-19 has potential long-term effects.  There’s a greater risk of developing blood clots, heart attack or stroke after having COVID-19. We don’t know fully the long-term effects of having the virus, so we can protect our communities from future negative health outcomes [by being vaccinated].  It’s not only that people are dying now – in the future there may be more negative outcomes,” said Dr. Mehr.  

Dr. Mehr is emphatic about the need to mobilize and get all members of the community vaccinated. 

“I would love for our community to be better protected. I don’t want to lose any more of our community. When we understand something, we no longer are afraid.  Both the Pfizer and Moderna have been shown to be 95% effective – studies show they are safe as well.”

How does the vaccine work? According to the Center for Disease Control, the COVID-19 vaccine uses ‘messenger RNA’ which has a spiked protein part that teaches the cells in our bodies to produce an immune response against the spiked protein of the COVID-19 virus. “That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies,” according to the CDC website.

“The antibodies stay in our bodies – they are there to fight. Should we ever see the coronavirus, the second shot makes the [defense] more effective and does a better job fighting off the COVID-19 virus.  It’s been shown to be very effective,” said Dr. Mehr.

Dr. Mehr says it’s important to know what to expect and that there may be some reaction like sore arm, headache or body aches.  

“They may have a reaction – that’s expected. That’s a normal thing.  When I got my first one – my arm was sore. On the second one, I had a sore arm and 12-13 hours later chills and body aches. However, I was really thankful, because this means the vaccine is working and my body is making antibodies . . . thankful to be feeling my immune system respond to the vaccine. The next morning, I had a bit of a headache that slowly wore off – that’s expected.” 

“If someone has a history of an allergic reaction to a vaccine – they would want to be in an appropriate [medical] facility to handle a reaction. I have a severe nut allergy. I know that the medical system can very well treat a severe [allergic] reaction – we’re prepared.” 

Dr. Mehr points out, even with reactions or possible allergies, medical treatment can handle those — but, “we don’t have as good a treatment for COVID-19. The benefits far outweigh the risks.“

She recommends that people who have a history of allergic reactions should wait 30 minutes after the vaccine and people who don’t have such a history should wait 15 minutes to be sure medical assistance is nearby.  

“A lot of us have had friends and family and patients affected by this [disease]. Concerning the vaccine, I’m just so glad it’s here – I just wish it had been here earlier. I had a patient who just qualified to get the vaccine, but then she contracted COVID-19 [before she could get the vaccine]. Unfortunately, she did not make it. If she could have just hung on a little bit longer–she was an older patient – she needed all the help she could get.”

“I want to make sure this vaccine is available for everyone. We have to work all together as worldwide community. As the Black community, we need to be a part of it. It’s super important. This is our hope.”