Vaccine and Race: Report says COVID vaccine may not be as effective for Blacks

by Stephon Johnson

While doctors introduce the COVID-19 vaccine to the public, one report suggests that ancestry could play a role in its effectiveness.

In a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled “Predicted Cellular Immunity Population Coverage Gaps for SARS-CoV-2 Subunit Vaccines and their Augmentation by Compact Peptide Sets,” researchers found that close to 10% of Asian participants didn’t respond as well to the vaccine as whites (0.5%).

According to David Gifford, MIT professor and senior author of the report, which used artificial intelligence and machine learning to test a COVID vaccine similar to those worked on by Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer, this means the various vaccines might not work as well for people of Black and Asian ancestry.

Gifford, along with PhD students Ge Liu and Brandon Carter, used a new machine learning based approach for improving the vaccine’s effectiveness among certain populations by adding a small number of additional COVID-19 peptides to a given dose of the augmented vaccine. Those vaccines use components from other vaccines that have been known to cause cellular immune system responses in COVID-19 patients.

According to the report, if you add 5 to 20% more peptides to a dose, it improves the vaccine’s effectiveness by 100% in the whole population.

In a statement, Gifford said the vaccine injection should go on as planned, but the medical world should continue its research to guarantee the success of the vaccines.

“Our work shows that clinical trials need to carefully consider ancestry in their study designs to ensure that efficacy is measured across an appropriate population,” said MIT professor and senior author David Gifford. “While we should proceed with the current vaccines, there needs to be further research and planning if they are found to not be as effective or durable as expected in all populations.”

Questioning the success of the vaccine isn’t just relegated to MIT professors. A recent survey on race and health by The Undefeated and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost half of the Black people surveyed said they won’t take it (22% “probably not” and 27% “definitely not”). When asked for reasons as to why they wouldn’t get the vaccine, 39% of white people said they don’t want it or need it and Black people cited safety concerns (39%) and lack of trust (35%). With a history of medical mistreatment and the Tuskegee Experiment in the recent past, some would suggest that Black people are justified in their distrust of the vaccine.

Some of the people surveyed said that they needed to see White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci take the vaccine on live television and then come back three days later (still in good shape) in order to trust the vaccine.

This week, Fauci participated in a conversation with the Black Coalition Against COVID, a group made up of Black doctors, leaders, academics and religious figures, urging the community to take the vaccine seriously and get it when it’s available. Fauci cited statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that show that Black people are almost three times more likely to die from the coronavirus once they’re infected.

“I, myself, will be perfectly comfortable with taking the vaccine and I will recommend it for my family,” said Fauci.

While the country awaits potential vaccine injections, locally, elected officials are calling for New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state congressional representatives to send whatever aid is available to help New Yorkers while a vaccine awaits.

During a Tuesday media briefing, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Willians said that the same government is making the same mistakes it did at the beginning of the pandemic and they need to take action now and close businesses ahead of time without any half-measures.

“But even worse we seem to be getting it wrong again,” said Williams. “It’s very painful to watch to see the governor’s decision-making process similar to earlier and it’s costing people lives.

“You can’t say we may shut down next week,” continued Williams. “You know it’s time to begin the process right now. This is not the type of help that businesses need. They [need] support from the state and federal government with aid to help them pay their bills.”

Williams also said that Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio need to be on the same page with the message.

“We have to be clear that everybody is not going to do everything, but [when] we’re not clear it’s hard to get everyone else to follow suit,” said Williams.

Despite the community’s overall misgivings about vaccines, a group of nurses are fighting to get the community to trust the process while dealing with their own mental health.

The National Black Nurses Association will launch two campaigns on Dec. 15 under their “wellness initiative” NBNA Resilient Nurse Resource called “RETHINK.” The initiative’s goal is to create awareness around vaccinations focusing specifically on influenza and pneumococcal (the name for any infection caused by bacteria that can cause a range of infections including ear and sinus infections and pneumonia.)

Another goal of NBNA’s initiative, which can be found at nbarethink.com, is to debunk myths about vaccines and talk up its benefits. It will also include a support line, free counseling for nurses and text therapy sessions.

“We know how difficult this year has been for nurses everywhere, especially Black nurses who are faced with both the pandemic and the current racial uprising,” stated NBNA President Dr. Martha A. Dawson. “It is crucial that we protect our nurses’ physical and mental wellbeing during such an unprecedented time in our country. With RE:SET we are able to provide them with the tools necessary to recover from the daily stresses of exhausting working conditions and challenges. It is essentially PPE for their mental and emotional health, which will help to impact their physical health.”

Meanwhile, a group of Black doctors want to assure the people that they’ll be taken seriously and taken care of by hospitals.

In a “love letter to Black people,” the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 called for the community to continue following guidelines while more studies are conducted on the vaccines.

“With the holidays around the corner, we want nothing more than to break bread with our loved ones,” read the letter. “But tradition cannot stand in the way of our health. We plead with you to wear your masks, continue social distancing, handwashing, and avoiding indoor events until vaccines are widely available.”

The coalition consists of Black doctors from the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, the National Black Nurses Association, Howard University, Meharry Medical College, the National Medical Association, the Morehouse School of Medicine and the Cobb Institute.

“We also ask you to join us in participating in clinical trials and taking a vaccine once it’s proven safe and effective,” continued the letter. “We know that our collective role in helping to create a vaccine that works for Black people—and that we trust—has an impact on our very survival.”

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