COVID-19 vaccine studies push for minority volunteers, but it's 'a hard sell'

Hundreds of thousands of Americans will be needed to test a handful of COVID-19 vaccines in large scale clinical trials.

Study organizers are trying to recruit a group hit especially hard by the novel coronavirus: people of color.

It has not been an easy sell, which is why Charles and Lisa Wynn of Parker, Colorado, decided to join Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine trial, the COVE Study, earlier this fall at UCHealth.

"We've been in this for about a month," Lisa Wynn, an OBGYN with UCHealth, says. "So it's given a lot of people opportunity to ask us how we're doing, and how do we feel, and do we feel safe?"

Lisa and Charles Wynn pose after receiving their second doses of an Moderna's experimental COVID-19 vaccine at UCHealth in Denver. (Lisa and Charles Wynn)

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The Wynns, who are African American, do feel safe but say they understand why others, especially Blacks, have doubts about medical research.

"In the African-American community, there is legitimate reason to be concerned about vaccines," Charles Wynn, a software sales rep, says.

For one, the Wynns say, there is the haunting legacy of the Tuskegee experiment, a study in which Black men with syphilis were promised medical care, only to be followed and left untreated by researchers tracking how the disease progressed.

The study stretched on for 40 years, from the 1930s to the 1970s.

"It was a very unethical way to conduct research," Dr. Wynn says. "So, understandably, there are a lot of people who are reluctant to participate in medical research because of that."

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The coronavirus has hit Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans disproportionately hard.

Minorities are more likely to be hospitalized and to die from the virus.

So Dr. Thomas Campbell, chief clinical research officer for UCHealth, says it is critical to understand whether these experimental vaccines will protect the people most at-risk in this pandemic.

"Those communities are the ones that have the greatest impact of COVID, the greatest effect of COVID," Campbell says.  "So they're also the communities that have the greatest need for access to the vaccine.  We want to be able to tell people that need the vaccine that the vaccine is safe and effective for you.

The Wynns recently received their last of two doses of the vaccine.

Couple poses with two young daughters

Lisa and Charles Wynn joined Moderna's COVE Study at UCHealth

They feel comfortable with the research.

"We have a lot of autonomy," Lisa Wynn says. "If we decide that we feel unsafe, or we no longer want to participate, we're able to leave the study."

But, convincing family and friends to follow in their footsteps hasn't been easy.

"People are very excited that we're participating, but also a little bit reluctant to raise their own hands," she says. "And there's the concern of, 'Well, I don't really want to be a guinea pig.'"

Still, the Wynns say they do not mind going first and hope other people of color will follow their lead.

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