The Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta has begun enrolling participants in a new clinical trial that seeks to study the safety and immune response of participants who have received vaccine boosters to combat emerging COVID-19 variants. MSM is one of 24 sites and four HBCUs to be selected for the COVID-19 Variant Immunologic Landscape trial by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. 

Because African Americans and other people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this trial — and others being conducted by the team at Morehouse — is critical, says Dr. Lilly Immergluck, who co-directs the trial unit with Erica Johnson, Ph.D. While African Americans are quicker to overcome vaccine hesitancy than whites, our community still lags behind other racial groups with regard to COVID-19 vaccination rates partly because of what some consider to be a well-earned mistrust of the medical and science communities. 

“More than some of these other institutions, we have to not only do our due diligence to roll out these studies, but we need to do our homework to understand every aspect of the pre-clinical data, the science that’s backing this up, because people are looking to us because we are a trusted source to a community that has been disproportionately affected by COVID,” says Immergluck, professor of microbiology, biochemistry, immunology and pediatrics at MSM. “We recognize that as an HBCU we wanted to be a trusted source to our communities of color regarding COVID as far as the vaccine trials, as well as other therapeutic trials that are coming out.”

An increased level of trust in an HBCU is a sentiment echoed by Cshanyse Allen, CEO and director of Innovative Health Care Institute, an Athens, Georgia-based company that provides entry-level health care training. Allen, who holds a doctorate in nursing practice, says she and her team began providing COVID-19 testing and vaccinations at their clinic because of the lack of access to testing for African Americans in her community. There was — and still is — a great deal of mistrust, misinformation and fear.

“People were scared,” Allen recalls. “Having an HBCU that is leading the way on the research is going to be phenomenal for our community because that is really going to take off a layer of mistrust. Having people that look like you not just giving vaccines and treating you, but actually doing the research so that you can have solid information about us, what happens with us — this is going to be groundbreaking for our community.”

Historically Black medical schools and colleges like Morehouse are also doing their best to enroll participants in clinical trials that reflect the communities they aim to serve. Research has found that while Blacks make up about 13% of the U.S. population, we represent only 5% of clinical trial participants. Because communities of color continue to be hardest hit by COVID-19 — and for various reasons unrelated to vaccine hesitancy — HBCUs must continue to take the lead. 

“If it’s affecting Black and Brown people disproportionately across the age spectrum, and you run these trials and there’s very few underrepresented communities in these trials, how can you say that the effectiveness and durability of these vaccines really work?” Immergluck asks. 

That’s why the Morehouse School of Medicine vaccine trial unit aims to be more than that, according to Immergluck, who has worked at MSM for more than 17 years. The vaccine unit team is focused on science-first, people-centered engagement serving the communities that are often overlooked. “We want to make sure they understand all aspects of clinical trials, in general,” Immergluck says. “What trial makes sense and makes the most impact in improving health outcomes for underrepresented populations? Those are the trials that I’m interested in being involved in; that’s what we’ve been selective about doing.”

And even as overall vaccination rates continue to increase, variants keep cropping up. It is these variants that this latest clinical trial is focused on. The trial also monitors the health of trial participants because so much about the long-term effects of COVID-19 are unknown; the science is constantly changing, Immergluck says. “I say to our team that we have to stay true to the data and science. We don’t know what this virus can do.”