A doctor explains why the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective.
Black Americans have legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the medical community. In the past, there have been several examples of researchers testing new medicine or procedures on Black Americans in unethical ways. This has resulted in a difficult situation: Black Americans are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but they are also hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Before the COVID-19 Vaccine: A History of Distrust
Black Americans have a unique reason to distrust the COVID-19 vaccine. For centuries, researchers used Black and enslaved people as test subjects, often without their consent. There are two infamous examples of this:
- J. Marion Sims, who medical historians call the “father of modern gynecology,” performed surgeries on enslaved women without their consent and without anesthesia.
- The Tuskegee Study used low-income Black men for a study about what happens to untreated syphilis. While the men had agreed to participate in the study, the researchers had lied and been misleading about the study and its purpose.
Repairing Trust in Medical Research
After the Tuskegee Study became public, ethics in medical research became a new focus. Researchers must now always receive “informed consent” from study participants. This means they agree to participate after learning what the study is for, the potential risks, and so on.
Additionally, when it becomes clear that a medicine or procedure is harmful or inadequate, the researchers must halt the study right away. This is also true if a new treatment becomes available that could provide relief. For example, penicillin became available to treat syphilis during the 1940s, yet the Tuskegee Study participants went untreated until the study ended in 1972.
This distrust may contribute to today’s racial disparities in health. Notably, many Black Americans volunteered to participate in the COVID-19 vaccine trials. This is important for a couple of reasons:
- Racial diversity among study participants helps prove that a vaccine is safe regardless of race
- Other Black Americans can feel more confident receiving the vaccine since they know others in the community have already done it.
Vaccine Development Process
One of the things that’s causing concern for some Americans is the speed at which researchers created the vaccines. It’s important to understand how this process worked.
All vaccines go through important and required phases of testing. This can be a long process. One of the reasons the COVID-19 vaccine was able to get through this process relatively quickly was because researchers have some familiarity with coronaviruses.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. Researchers are already familiar with SARS-CoV-1, which is the virus that caused the SARS global outbreak in 2003. (SARS stands for "severe acute respiratory syndrome.") Because of this, researchers already knew a lot about the genetic makeup of this virus, which helped them quickly create effective vaccines.
Safety of the COVID-19 Vaccine
After rigorous trials, which included consenting Black participants, the COVID-19 vaccine has been proven to:
- Be safe
- Not cause COVID-19
- Lower the risk of severe illness from COVID-19
- Decrease the chances of COVID-19 infection altogether
It’s crucial for eligible Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s their turn. Because the pandemic has hit Black communities especially hard, it’s even more important for Black Americans to receive the vaccine.
If you are still nervous or have questions about the vaccine, talk to a doctor you trust. They can help answer your questions or clear up misunderstandings. Some may even share some of your fears, but can help you weigh the risks and benefits.
Stella A. Safo, MD, is an HIV primary care physician and assistant professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
- Ensuring the safety of vaccines. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021. (Accessed on February 1, 2021)
- Ojanuga D. The medical ethics of the ‘father of gynaecology’, Dr J Marion Sims. Journal of Medical Ethics. 1993;19:28-31.
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017. (Accessed on February 1, 2021)
- U.S. public health service syphilis study at Tuskegee. Atlanta, GA; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. (Accessed on February 1, 2021)