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“Part of the Solution”: Meet the Black Doctor Who Joined a Vaccine Trial After Her Dad Died of COVID

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As the drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna seek emergency approval for their coronavirus vaccines, public health bodies and regulators are weighing how to distribute the vaccines and who will get access to them. The pandemic is disproportionately impacting African American, Latinx and Indigenous communities, exposing long-standing inequities and systemic racism in the U.S. healthcare system. These same communities are underrepresented in the clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines, due in part to centuries of abusive treatment at the hands of medical researchers. We speak with Dr. Chris Pernell, a public health physician in Newark, New Jersey, who is participating in Moderna’s vaccine trial, in part as a way to honor her late father who died from COVID and to ensure African Americans are included in the studies. “Being a public health physician, I needed a way to be a part of the solution,” she says. “I knew it was important for Black and Brown persons to participate if we were ever to get at a truly effective solution.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is meeting today to vote on who should be the first to get the coronavirus vaccine, once one is available. This comes as drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna are seeking emergency regulatory approval of their vaccines for widespread use, with Pfizer set to be reviewed by the FDA on December 10th. Moderna’s review will be a week later.

The coronavirus is raging across the United States, with 4 million cases in November alone. The pandemic is disproportionately impacting African American, Latinx and Indigenous communities and exposing long-standing inequities and systemic racism in our healthcare system. These same communities are underrepresented in clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines, due in part to centuries of abusive treatment at the hands of medical researchers.

We’re beginning today’s show with someone whose work focuses on how systemic racism undermines the health of people of color. She herself participated in Moderna’s vaccine trial, in part as a way to honor her late father and to ensure African Americans are included in these studies.

Dr. Chris Pernell is a public health physician in Newark, New Jersey, where hospitals in the early days of the pandemic were described as “bursting at the seams” with Black and Latinx patients infected with COVID. Around the same time, her father, Timothy Pernell, was hospitalized and tragically died from COVID complications on April 13th. Soon after, her sister Kim, a breast cancer survivor, was diagnosed with COVID; she’s still suffering from long-term symptoms.

Their father, Timothy Pernell, was recognized by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who tweeted about how he, quote, “worked his way up from the groundskeeping crew at Bell Labs to becoming a member of the technical staff.”

For more, Dr. Chris Pernell joins us from Montclair, New Jersey.

Dr. Pernell, it’s great to have you with us. Our condolences on the death of your father. Can you just take us on the chronology of what happened with your dad, what a remarkable man he was, and then, ultimately, your decision to be a participant in the Moderna trial?

DR. CHRIS PERNELL: Sure. Thanks for having me this morning.

So, if we can think back to the spring, when things were just really beginning to explode in New Jersey, in particular in Essex County and centering on Newark, New Jersey, which was unfortunately an epicenter of the pandemic, when hospitals were starting to restrict visitation, when cases were starting to pile up, my dad, unfortunately, got admitted to a local hospital, just a mere four miles away from where I work. He went in for an unrelated cause. He actually was stable. He was laughing. He was talking. He was talking about eating his favorite foods. And then, suddenly, one day, he became violently ill. He had vigorous chills, fevers, difficulty breathing. And we were concerned. His medical team was concerned. And after having several of those episodes, unfortunately, he had to be tested, and he tested positive.

When my father tested positive, it was very much in the early days of this coronavirus pandemic, when there was little that we knew about how to treat coronavirus, little that we knew about how to sustain life. And unfortunately, we couldn’t be there in person with him. I could, at best, speak with him over the phone, or family members could speak with him virtually. And then he just grew too weak. He grew too tired. I think I last heard my father’s voice the Thursday before he died, and he died on a Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us who he was.

DR. CHRIS PERNELL: Sure. My dad, I tell people, was heroic. I thought he was the bionic man. Here you had a man who came up during the Jim Crow South, who came north during a time that many Blacks did, following a migratory pattern fleeing systemic racism, even the terror of the Jim Crow South, and settled in the Newark, New Jersey, and New York area.

Ultimately, my father became a research scientist, but not before he took on a host of odd jobs. And one was being a groundsman on the famed Bell Labs campus. My father always had a knack for math and science, but college wasn’t a possibility for him in the 1950s in Richmond, Virginia. And so, one fateful day led to another fateful opportunity. And my dad was self-taught. He would read textbooks at night. He would go to classes provided at the lab by some of the Ph.D. scientists. And he assumed the research throne, I like to say. He was a part of definitely groundbreaking work at Bell Labs. And more importantly, he fought and he advocated for Blacks to have equal opportunities and access to fields in research.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Pernell, your father was not the only member of your family afflicted by the coronavirus. Could you talk about the experiences of other family members, and then your decision to participate in the vaccine trial?

DR. CHRIS PERNELL: Sure. I’ve been saying clearly, it is so important to put a face to this pandemic. It is so important to put a face to the science. When we talk about how coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown lives, I oftentimes point to my own story.

So, here, the week where we buried my father through a virtual ceremony, my sister was confirmed positive with coronavirus. My sister, who is a breast cancer survivor, works in an essential retail industry and likely got exposed on her job, became sick. She wasn’t hospitalized, but she was sick at home. We closely monitor her. And here, what, almost eight or nine months later, my sister still has lingering after-effects of the infection. She just got off of supplemental oxygen. She has not yet returned to work. So, that’s that disproportionate impact. And even this past Sunday, unfortunately, I lost another relative. I lost a beloved cousin to coronavirus, who suffered a catastrophic stroke.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, in terms of your decision to participate in the trial?

DR. CHRIS PERNELL: Sure. You know, my father’s death, what I saw my sister go through, what I saw the patients at our safety net hospital in Newark encounter and deal with, and being a public health physician, I needed a way to be a part of the solution. You could say it put a fire in my belly. I believe in public health science, obviously, as a public health physician. And I wanted a way to be a part of that science. My dad would frequently say to me — he would say, “Follow the science. Follow the data.”

And an opportunity was made available. Our hospital, in conjunction with a local academic medical institution, was a sponsoring site, so I was able to volunteer. And I did not hesitate at that opportunity. I knew what was known at that time from Phase 1 research, and I knew also that no serious medical event had happened in Phase 2, and I knew it was important for Black and Brown persons to participate, if we were ever to get at a truly effective solution.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about: Were there effects, side effects? People are describing feeling sick for a day or two. I mean, it is astounding, Dr. Pernell, that with your dad who’s died, with your sister who’s a long hauler, that you were willing to go through this even as you treat COVID patients.

DR. CHRIS PERNELL: So, let me talk about that. So, I’m not a frontline provider. I work in leadership, but I’m definitely a part of an institution caring for those frontline patients. But I would say to you, I had to — I had to do something. Right? I saw my community decimated. And understanding the legacy of systemic racism — that’s why this pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown lives — I needed a way to say, “Can we get at an effective solution to beat back this pandemic?” So I enrolled. I am very much aware of the legacy of medical experimentation, the legacy of medical exploitation, but this was an opportunity to be a part of something that was rooted in sound, ethical practice and upheld informed consent.

And so, when I got my first injection at the end of August, I could tell you it like when I got my flu vaccine, right? I had local pain or soreness at the injection site. I did have some headaches and things of that nature, but nothing too out of the ordinary or nothing that was concerning from my baseline. In addition to that first injection, I had a second injection in the very early days of October. That experience was a little bit different. I can tell you, that day, by the end of that day that I got that injection, I felt extreme fatigue. I was telling the story, I felt like I couldn’t get out of my car. I just felt overcome with excessive fatigue. In addition to that, I had a more severe headache. But I can tell you, those symptoms didn’t last longer than 24 to about 36 hours. And for me, it was worth it. I don’t know if I was in the placebo arm or if I was in the active vaccine candidate arm, but the experiences I’ve had to date, they’ve been worth it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Pernell, could you talk about some of the historic barriers to getting people of color, particularly African Americans, to want to participate in vaccine trials? There’s a natural skepticism because, as you mentioned, of the legacy of previous experiments done on people of color.

DR. CHRIS PERNELL: Sure. We can go back to slavery, when Dr. Sims was doing gynecological procedures on enslaved Black women without anesthesia, without their consent. They weren’t even considered human beings. We could talk about how Black bodies were robbed from cemeteries out of that Civil War era to allow medical students to learn anatomy and dissection. We could talk about the unfortunate and infamous experience of a Tuskegee syphilis study, where we had a treatment for syphilis but that was withheld to study the natural progression of the disease in Black men. We could talk about Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman in segregated Baltimore who had metastatic cervical cancer and had tissue samples taken from her womb unknowingly, that have become one of the most productive cell lines, that have led to groundbreaking research. We could talk about Mississippi appendectomies, where we’re describing where Black and Brown women have undergone forced sterilizations under the guise of something else. There are a host of examples in the literature, in the lived experience, that is weighed on the collective psyche of the Black and Brown community.

But in addition to what’s happened in the past, we in healthcare — I describe it as, we’re still grappling with systemic racism, right? We’re still grappling with inequity, that lead to staggering healthcare disparities, whether it is disproportionate disease prevalence rates or whether it is implicit bias that impacts provider and patient interactions. There is a truth that we cannot deny. And I’m very well cognizant of that truth, and my work centers on health equity and health justice. So, it’s so important, as we go into community and we talk about what tools we do have to beat back this pandemic, and clinical research being one of them, which has gotten us to the point where we have two vaccine candidates applying for emergency use authorization, we have to center that conversation in transparency and authenticity. And then we have to demonstrate trustworthiness — we in academic medicine, we in healthcare — so that we can win back, that we can cultivate, trust in these communities that have been historically excluded and disadvantaged.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Pernell, we’re going to ask Dr. Monica Peek this question, as well, in a minute, at the University of Chicago. But your thoughts on what’s being proposed now to increase participation, and that is paying people to take the vaccine? I think John Delaney, the former Democratic presidential candidate, former congressman from Maryland, is proposing something like $1,000, $1,500. Your thoughts on this?

DR. CHRIS PERNELL: I’m against that. I’m against that because I think that’s an unfair inducement. Having a financial incentive such as that, the people who would be most sensitive to that are those who are struggling with poverty. And we can’t have any shortcuts. We just have to do the hard work. And the hard work is demonstrating trustworthiness. The hard work is beating back the misinformation and the disinformation, and hearing people’s fears and concerns, and allowing science to listen with an empathetic ear, and then to demonstrate why this is the right choice, why this is so necessary to include our communities. I don’t think paying people is the way to go about it. I think, actually, that is a shortchange result that doesn’t center itself in a health equity approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Pernell, we thank you so much for being with us, public health physician in Newark, New Jersey, a Moderna vaccine trial participant. Thanks for being with us.

Next up, we’ll continue to discuss the COVID vaccines as drugmakers press for emergency approval, and the debate over whether people should be paid to take those vaccines, as well the CDC now considering today who should get the millions of vaccines that will probably be made available in the next weeks. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Firewood Collector” by Bernard Kabanda. The late Ugandan musician died of AIDS. Today is World AIDS Day.

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