Loretto Hospital is beginning clinical trials for COVID vaccines. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

AUSTIN — A West Side hospital has begun registering participants for coronavirus vaccine trials in early 2021, and leaders plan to push for as many West Siders to take part as possible.

Loretto Hospital is recruiting West Side residents for the vaccine trials in partnership with Affinity Health, which serves as a liaison between the hospital and biopharmaceutical partners. The collaboration aims to ensure more equitable access to vaccine trails for people disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, said Dr. Lois Clarke, Loretto’s director of clinical research.

Including West Side residents in the trials is essential, hospital leaders said. Black and Latino people were underrepresented in early trials even though the pandemic is disproportionately affecting those communities.

Potential vaccines need to be tested across broad demographics to develop reasonable certainty they will work for anyone who gets one, Clarke said.

“Too often in our past, we’ve seen vaccines or drug regimens come to market that didn’t work as expected on minority populations because they weren’t appropriately tested on these groups,” Clarke said.

Of Chicago’s 3,642 reported deaths from COVID-19, about 40 percent of the victims have been Black and 33 percent Latino.

But only 15 percent of participants in early vaccine trials were non-white, Clarke said.

Some communities have more essential workers and less opportunity for social distancing, said Dr. Ali Ahmed, president of Affinity. Those communities have to be included in trials so researchers can know if the vaccine is effective across different “dynamics of exposure,” Ahmed said.

“Even if everyone’s immune system reacts the same way to the virus, we know that people of color may respond differently to the infection and vaccine based on differences in overall health and underlying conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or emphysema,” Clarke said.

West Side participation also is critical to counter skepticism created by the country’s racist track record on conducting drug trials on minorities.

For example, during the Tuskegee experiment that ran 1932 to 1972, researchers studied hundreds of Black men infected with syphilis and withheld treatment for the disease, instead allowing the men to go blind, mentally deteriorate and slowly die without treatment to study the long-term effects of the disease.

When the experiment started, there was no known safe and effective treatment for syphilis but the experiment continued even after penicillin became the recommended remedy for the disease.

“We have a mistrust from years of racism and exclusion from the process,” State Rep. La Shawn Ford said.

Getting Black communities on the West Side to participate in the trials may be a challenge, Ford said, because “trust in the system has been eroded and never repaired.” But it is important to participate in the trials to start making strides toward equity and eroding the disparities that made Black and Latino communities so vulnerable to the pandemic, Clarke said.

“If we, as a community, want to benefit from a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s time to step up and make sure we’re being representatively included in the trials,” Clarke said.

Participants in the trials at Loretto must be at least 18 years old and in good health. Those selected will receive free health care for up to two years, regardless of insurance, and can opt out of the study at any time. To register, go to www.affinityhealthcorp.com.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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