Coronavirus: Why African Americans Are Wary Of Pfizer Vaccine—Legacy of Tuskeegee Syphilis Study

Many died painful deaths
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African American Guinea pigs. Photo: National Archives 

Who will be the first Americans to be injected with the new vaccines for the coronavirus that are now being celebrated in medical circles? 

The disease is raging one again due to the incompetence of the outgoing Trump regime. Today alone, 184,000 new infections were reported bringing the total nationally to 10.9 million cases and the deaths to 245,519. The impact has been devastating to communities of color, with African Americans 4 times more likely than European Americans to end up being hospitalized as a result of the disease, while the figure is 4.2 times more for Latinx. 

Logically it would make sense that communities of color be favored when it comes to receiving the drug once vaccines are distributed. But whenever it comes to vaccinations, or anything that involves new drugs, many Americans of African descent develop an automatic defensive mechanism—total skepticism and rejection. 

This isn’t a question of paranoia on the part of African Americans. All one has to do is recall the infamous barbaric Tuskeegee Syphilis Study, when African American men were intentionally allowed to suffer and die from the disease by the U.S. government, in the 20th century—truly macabre even given the pervasive racism of that era.

As Elizabeth Nix recalls, “Doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which was running the study, informed the participants—399 men with latent syphilis and a control group of 201 others who were free of the disease—they were being treated for bad blood, a term commonly used in the area at the time to refer to a variety of ailments.”

She added: “The men were monitored by health workers but only given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements, despite the fact penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947. PHS researchers convinced local physicians in Macon County not to treat the participants, and research was done at the Tuskegee Institute… In order to track the disease’s full progression, researchers provided no effective care as the men died, went blind or insane or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis.”

Here’s more: “In the mid-1960s, a PHS venereal disease investigator in San Francisco named Peter Buxton found out about the Tuskegee study and expressed his concerns to his superiors that it was unethical. In response, PHS officials formed a committee to review the study but ultimately opted to continue it, with the goal of tracking the participants until all had died, autopsies were performed and the project data could be analyzed. As a result, Buxton leaked the story to a reporter friend, who passed it on to a fellow reporter, Jean Heller of the Associated Press. Heller broke the story in July 1972, prompting public outrage and forcing the study to shut down. By that time, 28 participants had perished from syphilis, 100 more had passed away from related complications, at least 40 spouses had been diagnosed with it and the disease had been passed to 19 children at birth.”

So while Pfizer claims that in tests its newly-developed vaccine offers a 90% success rate, this alone is insufficient to counter the historical suspicion that African Americans have that the establishment is inclined to use it as guinea pigs. 

And, in the case of the coronavirus vaccine it’s not only African Americans who are skeptical about the vaccine, more than 50% of Americans surveyed say they won’t be willing to be vaccinated. Most believe that the vaccine’s testing has been compromised by the Trump administration who put pressure on the drug companies in order to secure some good news before the election and give the president a boost in the polls. 

While Pfizer’s announcement came after major media outlet had called the presidential election for Joe Biden, this in itself doesn’t remove the widespread suspicion that the vaccine’s testing may have been undermined due to political pressure. Nothing Pfizer says will make a difference. 

So what is to be done? 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has already said the vaccine won’t be immediately distributed in this state even when it becomes available, until after a review of the approval process of the vaccine is conducted by a state panel. This is the first step in the right direction. The governor, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, and prominent elected African American and Latinx officials must also take the lead in promoting information about the safety of the vaccine once it’s confirmed by the governor’s review panel.

When New York starts the vaccination campaign, in order to allay any suspicions in communities of color, there must be total transparency. In New York City for example, the vaccine should be administered in proportion to the city’s ethnic composition. Once the drug is proven to be safe, then administering the vaccination in favor of the disproportionately-affected communities is justified. 

This means that in the meantime the protective measures—such as wearing face masks, staying at home when possible, avoiding crowded places, and maintaining social distancing—must be escalated and rigorously adhered to. Shutdowns must be on the table in states and cities where appropriate. 

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