NEWARK, NJ — When Mayor Ras Baraka released a statement Sunday night addressing citizen concern over Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and University Hospital’s recruitment for the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial, he did so acknowledging medicine's long and shameful history of exploiting Black people.
“Citizens have the right to be skeptical and cautious about vaccines and clinical trials due to unethical practices that have transpired around the world,” he said. “Due to historic instances of scientific racism on African-Americans and people of color in this country it makes perfect sense for people to be afraid and quite frankly you have every right to be.”
But that point was mostly drowned out on Monday at a small protest in front of the health care facility, where apparent supporters of an anti-vaccine group proliferated a cacophony of internet conspiracy theories about the pandemic and immunizations.
Urban Global Health Alliance, which says on its website that it “will partner with communities to empower and engage on the issues of health and wellness,” and groups like it are posing big problems for health care in an age fractured by unsupported claims. According to a poll from the Wellcome Trust, only 70% of those surveyed trusted that vaccines were safe, a problem that is now surfacing is mostly wealthy nations. Another recent poll from NPR-PBS Newshour-Marist found that a whopping 35% of U.S. residents said they wouldn’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 if immunization becomes available.
Trials of COVID-19 vaccine candidate mRNA-1273, sponsored by the biotechnology company Moderna, are enrolling 30,000 people at more than 90 hospitals throughout the United States, including in suburban communities, according to University Hospital.
While the trials are not specific to Black and Latinx participants, Moderna is asking for “high-risk” populations to ensure the vaccine works over a diverse sampling of people. In an effort to reduce community discomfort, Shereef Elnahal, CEO of University Hospital, who is a person of color, enrolled himself as one of the first to receive a dose.
Baraka drew on examples like the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which saw the U.S. Public Health Service use deceptive practices on Black patients infected with syphilis, to relate the fear some Newarkers have voiced regarding the Moderna trials.
“However, the City of Newark cannot and did not authorize for any residents to partake in the research,” Baraka said in a statement. “If you do not want to be involved or have any uncertainty, please do not participate. If you are considering enrolling in the clinical trial, gather as much information as you can and inquire about how it can affect you. The trial is 100% voluntary and you have the right to say no.”
Whether the information gathered, and disseminated, by UGHA and its allies will help the communities it claims to uplift — largely urban, Black and brown and underserved — is a hard sell. UGHA, which advises its followers not to wear masks or get vaccines of any kind, says it has reach in New Jersey, Delaware and New York, but is not specifically Newark based.
Kevin Jenkins, CEO of UGHA and husband of former Newark councilmember and mayoral candidate Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins, rattled off a list of real crises in Newark, including the lead crisis, before using them to leverage assertions about COVID-19 and the vaccine trials taking place in the city.
“Black people in this city and Black people all across America, they are trying to wipe you out. This is from a Black man telling you this,” Jenkins said. “They are now involved in a conspiracy. I have 363 million viruses in my body, you want to put a bubble around me all day? That is illogical.”
Nearby, a woman shouted at passersby to “wake up” and held a sign reading “Bill Gates, Your Family First! Not Africa, India or Newark,” likely in reference to a false viral Internet conspiracy theory about software developer and billionaire Bill Gates, who has dumped millions into COVID-19 vaccine research, using a hypothetical COVID-19 vaccine to implant tracking devices into recipients.
In Newark, which was once the epicenter of the virus in the state with the nation’s highest COVID-19 death toll, gathering information — or rather, misinformation — may have an impact on the future of the city’s health. Researchers are predicting that communities where belief in vaccine conspiracies is high will have a hard time working toward eliminating the virus from their population, posing a risk to surrounding areas as well.
“The reality is that COVID-19 is still hurting and killing people of color, which makes the entire scenario problematic,” Baraka added in the statement. “Please, if you are not one to volunteer for the sake of science, please do not volunteer in the clinical trial. Please know that we are at a desperate and dangerous time in this country.”
Now in Phase 3 of testing, the Moderna trial has yet to produce any negative results to date, according to University Hospital.
“Regardless of whether University Hospital or any residents in Newark and the surrounding communities, participate in this vaccine study or any other vaccine study, it appears likely that a vaccine will be approved by January 2021,” Elnahal said. “The specific goal of enrolling residents in Newark and our surrounding communities is to ensure that our community is represented in these trials, in order to understand whether vaccine candidates will work in our communities.”