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COVID Vaccine Trials Seek Black & Latinx Participants, But History of Medical Apartheid Sows Mistrust

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As President Trump pushes to release a coronavirus vaccine before the November election, a National Institutes of Health report details how the process could be slowed by a lack of participation in vaccine studies by African American and Latinx people, many of whom mistrust the U.S. healthcare system due the history of racist medical exploitation. “The written history of medicine, the canon, has been carefully curated to elide the experience of African Americans,” says medical ethicist Harriet Washington, author of “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

President Donald Trump acknowledged Wednesday he publicly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus even as he received briefings in early February about the severity of the looming pandemic. Trump was responding to a reporter who asked if he misled the public in order to reduce panic.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that’s so. The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s admission came hours after Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward published bombshell excerpts from his forthcoming book about Trump called Rage, along with taped conversations with the president. In a February 7th phone call, Trump told Woodward about what he learned about the coronavirus from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your — you know, your — even your strenuous flus. … This is more deadly. This is 5 per — you know, this is 5% versus 1% and less than 1%. You know, so this is deadly stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, again, that was President Trump on February 7th. But the White House would not declare a national emergency on COVID-19 until March 13th. The revelations come as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 reached 190,000 on Wednesday.

This comes as Trump’s push to release a vaccine before the November election, called Operation Warp Speed, could be slowed by a lack of participation in vaccine trials by African American, Indigenous and Latinx people, many of whom mistrust the healthcare system, even as the coronavirus disproportionately impacts these same communities. A National Institutes of Health report attributed part of this mistrust to, quote, “the historical legacy of mistreatment at the hands of the medical profession.”

The most notorious abuse of African Americans at the hands of the medical establishment was the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service recruited 400 African American men with syphilis, studying the disease’s progression when purposefully left untreated. The subjects were given useless placebos and tracked over decades as their symptoms worsened, even though penicillin was identified as a reliable treatment in 1945. Syphilis can disfigure, cause dementia, blindness, extreme chronic pain and death. Repeated concerns with the unethical study were ignored until a whistleblower’s account of the experiment to the press in 1972 shut it down.

Well, on Tuesday, the NIH attempted to overcome the legacy and helped launch a series of TV commercials on the BET network, the Oprah Winfrey Network, Telemundo and Univision, like this ad, which features a series of Black people.

NIH AD: We know that someone somewhere is full of hope and strength and wants to take action, and who will take a step forward to hug her grandkids, walking the walk and rolling up their sleeves to go back to normal sooner. Volunteer to find the COVID-19 vaccine.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Harriet Washington, medical ethicist, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Her latest book, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Harriet Washington. We’re going to talk global issues in a moment, but for people who are not familiar, for example, with the Tuskegee experiment and what that experiment means, which you lay out so well in your book Medical Apartheid, how this could possibly happen, I wanted to go to a 1993 documentary about the Tuskegee experiments called Deadly Deception, which addresses how Black men were lured into the Tuskegee experiment with assurances they were actually receiving medical care, many told spinal taps were a form of treatment. This clip includes interviews with Tuskegee subject Herman Shaw and medical historian Vanessa Gamble.

NARRATOR: This letter, sent to each man before his spinal tap, claimed it was a very special free treatment.

MACON COUNTY HEALTH DEPT. REPORT: “Some time ago you were given a thorough examination and since that time we hope you have gotten a great deal of treatment for bad blood. You will now be given your last chance to get a second examination. This examination is a very special one and after it is finished you will be given a special treatment if it is believed you are in a condition to stand it.”

HERMAN SHAW: [reading] “This examination is a very special one and after it is finished you will be given a special treatment if it is believed you are in a condition to stand it. … REMEMBER THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE FOR A SPECIAL FREE TREATMENT.”

VANESSA GAMBLE: The men were told that the spinal taps were a treatment. That shows you some of the deception and deceit involved in the study. And these are physicians saying this, so that it has a certain power and authority of physicians saying this.

NARRATOR: On each subject, they performed physicals and blood tests. And to maintain the appearance of treatment, the doctors gave the men placebos — vitamins, aspirins and tonics — all useless against syphilis.

HERMAN SHAW: There are three different type of medicine: the little round pill, sometimes they gave us a capsule, and then they would give us a little vial of liquid medicine. Everybody got the same thing.

VANESSA GAMBLE: These were men who weren’t going to question the system, who weren’t going to question the government doctors, who weren’t going to be out there picketing and writing and protesting about it. These were men in Macon County, Alabama. Who’s going to speak for them?

AMY GOODMAN: That clip from a 1993 documentary about the Tuskegee experiment called Deadly Deception. This experiment, Harriet Washington, went on for 40 years?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Yes, it did. It’s the longest instance of unethical medical experimentation in Western history. However, it’s one study. My book Medical Apartheid documents centuries of studies, many, if not most, of which were far worse than Tuskegee.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you go through just some of them with us, a kind of short journey with us to the — I mean, it’s hard to talk about this — to the experimentation on African Americans in this country?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Of course. You know, it’s 500 pages and four centuries, so I can’t possibly summarize it. But they range from things like pouring boiling water on the backs of slaves to treat them for typhoid; to removing slaves’ arms and legs simply to show medical students how the procedures of amputation were done; to locking women in literally a cage, a small laboratory, on the property of Dr. James Marion Sims, and then subjecting them to reproductive surgeries, that were experimental, over the course of five years at least; and then, also, removing the jawbone of a slave despite his protests; testing vaccine on slaves; testing other novel procedures and appropriating the bodies of slaves in order to test modalities, in order to use them for various experiments, and also to use their bodies after death for anatomical dissection, as medical training material — postmortem racism.

These things were so prevalent that most Northern medical schools had contracts with Southern medical schools to get the bodies of dead Black people, because they didn’t want to use dead whites in this manner. It was considered disrespectful. The history is extremely extensive. It goes on for a very long time. And frankly, it has not ended.

When it comes to vaccine, I actually find more troubling, far more troubling than Tuskegee — which is not a good parallel for this problem — more recent problems with vaccines, vaccine experiments that have been very — have been unethical and exploitative, and other procedures, especially in the developing world, that have been exploitative, that have caught the attention of African Americans and others. So, even the recent history of vaccine abuse has been very troubling and caused a lot of reticence.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Harriet Washington, could you talk about how widespread the knowledge is of the older medical experiments that you were speaking of, and what role you think that history, as opposed to the treatment of Latinx and African Americans in the medical world today — to what extent is knowledge of that medical history kind of a disincentive for people to enroll in the vaccine trials now, as opposed to the continuing discrimination against Latinx and Black communities now?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: I would not put those things in opposition to each other. They both contribute.

But it’s important to realize that the written history of medicine, the canon, has been carefully curated to elide the experience of African Americans. You simply would not find this history detailed in other history of medicine books. Until Medical Apartheid was published, it was ignored. It was certainly documented in the past in old journals, in medical doctors’ own research reports, but no one had collected it.

So you find, in academia, there is very little knowledge of that; however, amid African American communities, there is a great extensive knowledge of it, because there had been a rich oral tradition passed on. Many people had those in their families who had been subjected to experimental abuse, and this knowledge was prevalent and passed on. So, we had the unusual situation where African Americans were quite conversant with the history. They may not have known — they probably could not have known — the details that I got from reading medical journals, because they were not allowed access to the medical journals, but they knew these things were occurring.

But in terms of history of medicine canon, they were routinely ignored. And there was a lot of reluctance, until Medical Apartheid was published and scholars could see how carefully I had documented the things that I had described. Only then was there an admission that these things actually happened within academia.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Fauci, the infectious disease specialist, says that if you look at the trials that are taking place in the United States today, Moderna has 16% Latinx participation, Pfizer has 11% Latinx participation, Moderna has only 10% Black participation, and Pfizer only 8%. Fauci recommends 37% Latinx participation and 27% Black participation.

When we come back, we’re going to go global with you, Harriet Washington. Again, Harriet Washington is a medical ethicist and author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. She mentioned a Pfizer test in Nigeria, and we’ll talk about that, look at South Africa, India and beyond. Stay with us.

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