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Who else volunteered for COVID vaccine trial? It’s anybody’s guess

Dustup settles down over Kimbrough’s suggestion to volunteer

By Victoria Hardy
On November 6, 2020

NEW ORLEANS (September 6, 2020) – The dust has settled after the major blowup over a suggestion at the start of the semester from DU’s Dr. Walter Kimbrough and the president at Xavier University to consider volunteering for a COVID-19 vaccine trial, but whether anyone from the two schools actually did volunteer besides the two leaders is anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know of any,” Kimbrough said recently when asked about volunteers from Dillard. “I had a couple of people tell me they are thinking about it, but I don’t know if any have…It’s up to a two-year commitment, so that’s going out the vast majority of people.”

The whole point, as Kimbrough explained in an interview on “Roland Martin Unfiltered,” was “leading by example…We wanted to say, ‘think about it, it’s important’…I understand the fears, but you have to have the diversity.”

Oschner Health Systems announced in July plans to participate in the Phase 2/3 global study sponsored by Pfizer of a COVID-19 vaccine. The trial will have up to 30,000 participants at 120 sites on a rolling basis.

Kimbrough said he already had been considering volunteering knowing the need to understand how medicines affect black patients, too. He made the decision after XULA’s Dr. C. Reynold Verret called and told him he had joined the study, and they decided to issue a joint statement to create awareness of the need for black participation.

When they sent out a joint letter in September encouraging faculty, staff and students to consider volunteering as well, social media brought out a considerable number of critics, to say the least. One example of a harsh response was calling the presidents “lab rats” who wanted the students to become lab rats; another was implying they were being paid.

Martin and media outlets such as WDSU picked up the story. Kimbrough himself wrote a column on Medium.com.  And a sidebar controversy erupted when SGA President Traelon Rodgers told concerned alumni to “shut up” on social media and, in return, was chastised by alumni for being disrespectful.

“If you’re an alumni, just shut up,” Rodgers said. “You don’t have to deal with it. You don’t go here anymore…The bottom line is you taking the vaccine might be able to help save somebody’s life later on.”

The communications office sent out a note of clarification emphasizing:

  • The vaccine trials are voluntary.
  • Neither institution or president is receiving any form of compensation.
  • Public health must be guided by science, not by the politics of the moment.

Half the trial participants receive a portion of the vaccine in two shots while the other half get a placebo saline solution. Both presidents received injections without knowing which group they’re in and have been monitoring and reporting any symptoms and potential side effects.

Kimbrough said he didn’t mind being called a lab rat and that “without them, we would experience diseases and even death.”

When asked how he’d feel if a student participated in the trial and had a bad outcome, the president responded, “Again, we asked people to think about participating. We also provided contact information to get more information. I spoke with Dr. [Corey] Hebert [Dillard’s chief medical officer], and he said by the time you get to a Phase 3 trial, which this is, the chances of it being harmful are very low. They are really trying to see if it works.”

Kimbrough emphasized, as did the letter he and Verret sent, that he understands how history has made black people wary, citing the Tuskegee Experiment, which let black men die even after a cure for syphillis had been found just to see the effects the untreated disease would have.

As a result, basic ethical principles for conducting human research has since been developed in the Belmont Report.

Kimbrough pointed out that blacks make up a large portion of essential workers who will need a vaccine that works for them.

“Sadly, too many in our communities are more afraid of the sickness than the solution,” he said in a written response. “We take flu vaccine less than any other group, and yet we are more severely harmed by the flu. Same for COVID. Black people are disproportionately killed by the virus because we have more co-morbidities (diabetes, heart disease, etc.).”

For more information about the trial, visit the CoVPN Volunteer Screening Registry (www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org), email COVIDVaccine@ochsner.org or leave a message at (504) 703-8283.

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