Dr. Leon McDougle

Behind the Black community’s lack of trust in the COVID-19 vaccine is also that lingering legacy of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis, which was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Services (USPHS) beginning in 1932. Six hundred Black men—399 with syphilis, 201 without—were lied to and intentionally misled about the study’s purpose and were denied facts required to provide true informed consent. In exchange for their participation, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Originally intended to be a 6-month study, it secretly lasted for 40 years and aimed to follow the men until their deaths.

Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a catch-all term for a set of conditions including syphilis, anemia, rheumatism, digestive issues, and fatigue.   U.S. Public Health Services (USPHS) researchers withheld treatment for the Black men’s syphilis—even after penicillin became widely used to cure the disease in 1947—and actively discouraged the men from seeking treatment elsewhere. Researchers simply watched the men suffer from the disease.

In 1972, U.S. Public Health Services (USPHS) Bruce Buxton, troubled by the study’s lack of ethics, leaked this story to the media.

Congressional hearings followed in 1973, and in 1997, President Bill Clinton officially apologized to the victims and their families. “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry,” he said. A 1973 class-action lawsuit was settled for $10 million.

The Tuskegee experiment is not-too-distant history, and health disparities still affect African Americans and they have poorer outcomes even when controlling for socioeconomic status. Mistreatment remains common. And there are too few Black health care providers in the United States and only 7% of all pharmacists are Black.

Operation Warp Speed’s goal is to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines with the initial doses available by January 2021, as part of a broader strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics (collectively known as countermeasures) is taking place has triggered fear and suspicion that the ultimate product could be unsafe, especially among Black Americans.

Leon McDougle, MD, President of the National Medical Association (NMA) the largest and oldest organization representing African American physicians and their patients in the United States has convened a panel of seven Black doctors to vet the vaccine process because Black physicians are concerned about medical racism and mistrust that has continued to occur in the black community.

The National Medical Association COVID-19 Commission on Vaccines and Therapeutics will evaluate vaccines currently in clinical trials for safety and efficacy. The commission will also evaluate clinical trial processes, of which many Black health care providers are skeptical.

Its aim is to ease minority communities’ misgivings. Research proves that racial concordance between physician and patient results in greater health outcomes due to improved trust. If providers are confident in the vaccine’s safety, their patients are more likely to as well.