NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The head of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, the oldest historically Black medical school in the country, on Thursday urged Black and Hispanic people to participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials to ensure the treatments are effective in communities that have been hit the hardest by the virus.
At the same time, Dr. James Hildreth — Meharry's president and CEO — acknowledged minority populations have at times been used as “guinea pigs” in medical research, and said overcoming that hesitation of new medical treatments remains a battle today.
Meharry pointed to the so-called “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” where the federal government let hundreds of Black men in rural Alabama go untreated for syphilis for 40 years for research purposes.
Roughly 600 Alabama Black men, who were mostly poor and uneducated, participated in the study that started in 1932. An estimated 200 were allowed to suffer the disease without treatment even though penicillin had been discovered as a cure for syphilis while the study was ongoing.
Medical officials say the chilling effects of the study linger to this day, where it’s regularly cited as a reason some Black people are reluctant to participate in medical research, or even go to the doctor for routine check-ups.
In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton apologized for the U.S. government to those who had participated in the study and to their families.
During Thursday’s Nashville virus briefing, Hildreth, who is Black, said, “The Tuskegee experiment in which African Americans were subject to such egregious lapses in ethics in the hands of government physicians figures prominently in why so many of us are apprehensive and distrustful about medical research, especially in minority communities.”
Hildreth stressed, however, that as a result of the Tuskegee experiment, human subject research standards were put in place and patient safety is now prioritized rather than overlooked. Three vaccine clinical trials are currently ongoing in Nashville at Meharry, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Clinical Research Associates.
Hildreth’s comments come as Pfizer announced earlier this week that early data suggests its COVID-19 vaccine is 90% effective.
“I would like to encourage as many Nashvillians as possible, especially African Americans and Latinx community individuals, to participate in the trials because as we all know, these individuals are much more likely to get infected and to die,” he said. “It’s very important we know these vaccines work in these populations.”
Hildreth, who has been a prominent voice during the coronavirus pandemic in Nashville, later told reporters he’s been asked to submit his resume to President-elect Joe Biden's transition team when pressed if he would have any role in the Democrat's administration.
He added that "of course, if I’m asked to assist in any way to get us through this crisis we’re in, of course I’m going to do just that.”
This story has been corrected to show that there are three, not two, vaccine trials taking place in Nashville.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.