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ANA President On Why People Of Color Should Be Involved In Vaccine Trials


There are now three promising COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon. And the first Americans to receive one could get it as soon as mid-December. So now the case is being made for people to get comfortable taking them. Ernest Grant is one of the top-ranking nurses in the country. He leads the American Nurses Association. He's also participating in one of the vaccine trials. He says it's important that people of color participate in trials to improve accuracy and to build trust.

ERNEST GRANT: I think there's a well-documented history of Blacks being used in experiments. So even today, there's still, you know, hesitancy to participate. You know, and usually, it is based on those prior experiences.

GREENE: Grant believes the history of distrust has to be acknowledged and reshaped. And for him, that has to begin with those on the front lines.

GRANT: First of all, nurses need to educate themselves so that they have the most accurate and up-to-date information, being able to just, you know, sit down and answer questions or concerns that members of the public may have. And I think also having people in authoritative positions, such as maybe a pastor or Black doctors and nurses - actually seeing them take the injection - those are some of the ways that we can help to convince communities of color that, you know, they really need to not have a fear of these vaccines.

GREENE: I mean, is it possible for experimental vaccines to have different effects depending on race or ethnicity? Or is that just a myth?

GRANT: No, it is possible. And that's one of the reasons why with the clinical trials that there is a need to seek out a variety of volunteers because everybody's body is different. And as they, you know, begin to participate in the trials, we're able to pick up on those little things and know that, you know, OK, so what are some of the common side effects? Or are there side effects that we may see in one particular ethnicity over another? And that's why it's so important that we get a whole rainbow of colors of people, if you will, to participate in these trials so that we can say that we know for certain in communities of color that these vaccines are just as effective as they are in the white population.

GREENE: It feels really important to underscore this. I mean, one reason you have decided to take part in a trial yourself is, as I think you said, to be a role model and to show that that it is safe and OK if you are a person of color to do this. But in addition, I mean, you're saying there's a real risk if you don't have a diverse enough population in these clinical trials. I mean, the results could be misleading. And you might not catch some potential risks.

GRANT: Absolutely. And it could also further some of the misconceptions that people may have. Oh, well, they only tried it on white people, so - well, you don't want to go down that rabbit hole, but that could certainly be that. And again, just trying to educate the public that there are guidelines. There's ethical standards. There's a review board. We have to trust science.

GREENE: We've seen some companies obviously moving along in the process. And there's been, you know, some reason for optimism. From what you've seen so far, are you confident that there's a diverse enough population being tested, that you'll have faith in results?

GRANT: Certainly, I think between both the Pfizer and the Moderna, the numbers that I'm hearing of people of color that they had in their clinical trials - yes, I think that is enough to go forward and begin to administer the vaccine. Obviously, we got news of AstraZeneca. I know their clinical trial is still open, and they are still looking for particularly people of color to participate. But yes, based on the numbers of Pfizer and Moderna, I believe that there is enough Black and people of color participation that we can move forward and say that this is safe.

GREENE: So what's the experience been like for you being part of one of these early trials?

GRANT: Well, you know, I was thinking about it a couple of days before I got asked to participate. I saw that as a sign of, OK, you know, go ahead and do it. It's been fine. I just had - literally just about a day of just extreme fatigue and chills, and that's been it. I was able to still work during that time and continue to feel great.

GREENE: I mean, you can't know for sure. But do you - the fact that you felt something, does that suggest that you actually got one of the vaccines and not a placebo. Or at least, have you convinced yourself of that?

GRANT: (Laughter). Well, from what I'm hearing, yes, a placebo usually does not give you fatigue and chills. Hearing from other people who have talked about their experiences, mine has been sort of the same. I am still in the study. I will be followed for two years. And at the end of the study is when it gets unblinded. But I probably did get the vaccine and not the placebo.

GREENE: But I'm just putting all of this together and thinking this through. I mean, if this is a two-year process, that means, you know, once there are vaccines widely available, you can't go get one because that might mess up the study. I mean, let's just say in theory, you got the placebo and that these symptoms were coming from something else. I mean, there's, like, a - there's a risk there - right? - that you could be unvaccinated for for a while.

GRANT: Yes, there is a potential risk, but I still maintain contact with my clinical trials unit. I do keep a diary. And I also have a number to call the clinical trial unit if I'm experiencing anything that resembles the signs and symptoms of COVID and will be brought in and, you know, examined and the next steps from there. So I suppose, yes, you are right that there is that possibility. But, you know, so far - knock on wood - that has not happened.

GREENE: Why is it worth the risk to you?

GRANT: Well, it's worth the risk because, you know, we're in the middle of a pandemic. And at this rate, particularly knowing that this virus has a propensity to really proliferate through the Black and brown community, I wanted to be able to do my part to contribute to that body of science that would help to alleviate or at the very least knock down this virus or the virus spread. So that's why it is so important because, obviously, I care about mankind. And anything we can do to put this virus to rest, I'm willing to do my part.

GREENE: Ernest Grant leads the American Nurses Association. He is also taking part in one of the vaccine trials. Thank you so much for your time. And thanks for all the work you and other nurses have been doing for all of us in our country.

GRANT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINITUS TEMPO'S "MIDNIGHT GLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.